2017 RET Program (Now REx – Environmental Health)

The Research in Environmental Health program introduces entering 11th and 12th grade students to systems thinking as they consider the impacts of toxicants to human and environmental health. Toxicants can be any number of compounds typically introduced to an ecosystem through human action. Many times, the impacts of these chemicals are not realized until damage has occurred. How can we develop better, safer materials for both environmental and human health while still attending to society’s need for economic security? How can we design solutions to combat the damage already done to try to restore an ecosystem? What influence does the community – local, state, national, global – have and to what extent should the needs of these different communities be attend to?

Many of the products utilized today have a toxic effect somewhere along the continuum between creation, usage, and decomposition. For example, the paper that we use to take class notes created effluent at the pulp mill that was disposed of, likely in an adjacent body of water that at one time was teeming with flora and fauna. The hot effluent enters the water, altering not only the temperature, but also the chemical composition of the water. What impacts, both short term and long term, might this have for the surrounding ecosystem? Working with UF researchers, RET students will learn bench techniques such as mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, and water chemistry testing, to determine the chemicals present. Once the chemicals are known, RET students will observe genetic and behavioral changes to fauna such as the feminization of fish or polluted alligator eggs as they are exposed to estrogen-mimics.

Other toxins that enter our environment through human effects such as climate change and the increasing occurrence of sea-level rise, of particular relevance to the coastal communities in Florida. How do organisms react to such changes? Using the model organism C. elegans, RET students will perform laboratory assays to understand not only behavioral responses but also look at the molecular level to determine mutations that may favor adaptation to harsh conditions.

Complimenting the bench experiments will be site visits to areas around North Central Florida that are faced with environmental toxicology issues. A Superfund site located in Gainesville provided jobs for many residents who spent their work days treating lumber with chromate copper arsenic, later discovered to be a harmful chemical for the environment. Like many other places around the United States, these chemicals jeopardized the water supply as they entered the Floridan Aquifer.

RET students will also follow water from a where it enters the Floridan Aquifer, how it moves through the porous limestone, and re-emerges through one of the many freshwater springs that dot the landscape. Along this journey, students will witness the visible debris and perform tests to detect the chemicals that have been introduced through human activity. Wetland restoration projects are one way to mitigate the impacts of toxicants, providing a natural filtering system. However, these projects are not without complications themselves as the RET students will learn through site visits to such projects. North Florida is also home to a paper mill and the equal distance to the two coasts provide more opportunities to explore ecosystems damaged and recovering from toxicological impacts.

Creating products that are safer for environmental and human health and design solutions to mitigate existing problems must be mindful of environmental policies, law, ethics, and the beliefs and attitudes of the community. RET students will have the opportunity to explore these topics in small group conversations with humanities researchers and consider how these perspectives impact economic and national security.

Drawing on the laboratory assays, site visits, presentations and conversations with UF researchers and humanities professors, student teams will be given a scenario to consider. As a team, they will develop a plan to assess the impact of a particular toxicant and devise a solution to mitigate current impacts while being mindful of the community – at all levels- impacted by the event. Student teams will present their plans to their colleagues and partner UF faculty, graduate students, and community partners.

At the conclusion of the Research in Environmental Toxicology program, students will be armed with knowledge and skills to address some of the most challenging issues that await and develop novel and sustainable solutions for improved human and environmental health. RET students will utilize systems thinking and consider entire ecosystems and the interconnectedness of us all.