Wellesley College Students Seek Ways To Improve the Environment

Nov. 20, 2008

CONTACT: Arlie Corday,

WELLESLEY, Mass. – Water, water everywhere – and how it relates to cleaning up the environment – has been the focus for three Wellesley College students' research projects, which they presented at the 7th Annual New England Undergraduate Environmental Research Symposium, “Water: Regional and International Issues," this month at Bridgewater State College.

Wellesley juniors Megan Carter-Thomas, Devaja Shafer and Emily Estes began working in Associate Professor of Geosciences Dan Brabander’s environmental geochemistry laboratory as part of Wellesley's 2008 summer research program.

“Projects ranged from examining the issue of lead in urban gardens, to the legacy of industrialization in the Neponset River Watershed, to evaluating the mobility of lead-bearing pigments in artificial playing fields,” Brabander said. “This group of students has all continued working in my lab this semester and presented their results to their peers at other institutions at the conference.”

Three presentations were made by the Wellesley team: “Urban Gardens and Soils: Evaluating Lead Contamination, Transport Mechanisms and Exposure Pathways”; “Evaluating Risk in a Historically Developed Watershed: A Spatial Analysis of the Sources and Background of Trace Metals in Neponset River Sediments”; and “Evaluating Heavy Metals in Artificial Turf Fields: Leaching Mechanisms and Exposure Pathways.”

Emily Estes, the daughter of Terry Estes and Karen Racz of Buckland, Mass., is a geosciences and environmental studies double major, a member of the Wellesley Energy and Environmental Defense group and a resident of Wellesley College’s new Sustainability Co-op, which focuses on sustainable living practices.

She has been involved in the ongoing projects in the Brabander lab, including “the legacy of industrial pollutants in the Neponset River watershed, the potential risk posed by lead- and chromium-bearing pigment in Astroturf, and a project evaluating lead contamination in urban gardens in Roxbury and Dorchester,” she said. “For the latter project, we worked with the not-for-profit The Food Project and thought about remediation schemes to permanently remove lead or at least reduce exposure.”

Estes finds her work satisfying for a variety of reasons. “I like the research because it's so interdisciplinary — it requires drawing connections between chemistry and biology and thinking broadly about transport mechanisms for the contaminated soil and the actual risks posed to humans, which in turn relates to the environmental studies/social justice side of my interests,” she said.

Devaja Shafer, the daughter of Lianne R. Shafer of Alameda, Calif., and Detlef Hammerschmidt of Germany, is treasurer of Wellesley Energy and Environmental Defense and, like Estes, lives in the Wellesley Sustainability Coop.

Shafer's research focuses on "millpond sediments linked with the early industrialization in the Neponset River watershed," she noted, "[which] act as reservoirs for metals that can geochemically fingerprint historical land use."

Megan Carter-Thomas, a geology major and chemistry minor, is the daughter of Judith and Robert Thomas of Brentwood, N.H. She has been geochemically characterizing artificial turf used on sports playing fields.

"Recently there's been a lot of skepticism in the media concerning the safety of artificial turf fields," she said. "Much of the skepticism has been focused on the high on-field temperatures the fields are known to reach and the implications of such temperatures for the health of field-goers. While turf fields differ in exact composition, the pigment in the grass fibers is often lead chromate. Lead and chromium can have serious health effects on humans, and there are several benchmarks used to quantify at what level health effects are likely. Our research is focused on whether the lead chromate pigment encapsulated in the grass fibers has the potential to leach and, if so, what exposure pathways exist. For example, instead of focusing on skin contact and ingestion, are these metals traveling downward and eventually into groundwater?"

Brabander’s lab is currently involved in environmental geochemistry and medical geology with a focus on the urban environment. Applications for the lab research include bioremediation, environmental biomonitoring, fate and transport of contaminants (toxic metals) in watershed and aquifer systems, isotopic dating and mapping of contaminants within sediments and soils, and sustainable urban agriculture.

The annual symposium focuses on undergraduate research posters in all environmental disciplines from colleges and universities in the Northeastern United States. This year, more than 50 student presentations were made. The event provides a forum for discussion of issues related to environmental research and education particular to the New England region. It also opens doors to collaborations in research and education among the participants.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.