OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Undergrad research program yields payoff

06/18/1997

CORVALLIS - Original research by an undergraduate student at Oregon State University has identified two common aquatic plants of the Willamette Valley that have good potential to absorb heavy metal pollutants.

Knowledge about which plants are most effective in retaining pollutants will help improve performance of the "constructed wetlands" that are increasingly being developed to deal with byproducts of industrial activity.

The newest findings also illustrate the success of OSU programs to get undergraduate students involved in research and working side-by-side with top level scientists at an earlier stage of their education, officials say.

In this research effort, Jorie Wilson, an OSU senior from Dallas, Ore., studied the aquatic plants coontail and South American waterweed, both of which are common in Western Oregon rivers and wetlands.

"Wetlands are being created more and more to help clean up contaminated water, and you necessarily want to use plants that are already commonly found in the region," Wilson said. "But if you have a specific goal, such as absorbing heavy metals, not all plants are created equal. There's a lot we don't know about which ones will work best for this purpose."

In her study, Wilson examined the potential for coontail and South American waterweed to absorb chromium and zinc, as well as be a possible indicator of arsenic, cadmium, copper and lead pollution.

She found that while both plants absorbed these metals, the waterweed was most effective, taking up a large amount of zinc and significant levels of chromium.

Data such as this will help engineers customize natural water treatment systems for their particular locations, Wilson said.

"In Florida, for instance, water hyacinth works great for this purpose," she said. "But it's a tropical plant and that won't do us much good in Western Oregon."

Wilson worked in this study with James Moore, professor and head of the OSU Department of Bioresource Engineering. She said that a research project such as this "was a great learning experience" enroute to her bioresource research bachelor's degree.

OSU undergrad students have always been taught by active faculty researchers and exposed to the scientific research process. At most universities more intensive research is usually reserved for the graduate school level, however.

But under programs such as the one Wilson is taking, a full two-year program of work with a faculty "mentor" and a senior thesis is an integral part of the undergraduate degree. There are more than 100 such mentors working with OSU students in this program, from 15 departments in three colleges. A strong science background is developed along with problem-solving and communication skills.

Such training is excellent background for further work at the graduate level, educators say, or for students to move immediately into private industry or become science teachers in middle schools and high schools.