#Scifund Challenge Round 4 with Lee Stanish

Each day we are going to highlight one of the amazing research projects seeking funding in Round 4 of the #Scifund Challenge. Today we hear from Lee Stanish whose project investigates ground water contamination due to natural gas fracking.
Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.
I’m a 32 year old female, enjoy long walks in the woods, and romantic dinners…
OK, seriously! I grew up in a smallish town in Massachusetts called Swansea. A lot of the experiences I had in this coastal town have influenced my interests in water quality, because despite the presence of water everywhere, our water was often impaired due to problems like saltwater intrusion into the shallow aquifers, pollution from a local coal-fired power plant, and septic system failures that contaminated local beaches. I’ve made it my life goal to help us understand how to be better stewards of our water, and I believe microscopic organisms known as microbes can be super useful in addressing this important goal.

How did you get involved in your research project?

As is often the case, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time! I was just finishing a postdoctoral  fellowship conducting biofuels research using algae, when the opportunity arose to study the microbiology of drinking water in the lab of one of the most inspiring and influential people in my life, Dr. Norman Pace. Folks in the lab had talked about studying groundwater microbiology, but were stumped by how to find citizens who would allow us to sample their well water. With the help of a summer undergraduate assistant from the RESESS internship program, we wrangled some volunteers. But, things really took off when we teamed up with Stephen Osborn, a professor of geochemistry who was also interested in looking at the chemistry of well waters in Colorado using stable isotopes. We coordinated our sampling, which provided a much richer data set than I could have gotten on my own, and that provided really cool preliminary data that spurred the idea for this SciFund project.
Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?
Look, there’s no doubt that natural gas extraction is here to stay. It is cleaner than coal, and I do believe that it can be developed sustainably. My concern is that we are developing hydraulic fracturing without first understanding the potential risks to our water supplies. Not just from the act of fracking a well, but for the entire life-cycle of drilling, fracking, and ultimately disposing of the waste material. We should be taking a proactive approach to ensuring that public health and the environment are sufficiently protected before continued development of this vast energy source.
Do you have a favorite story that came from working on your research project?

One of the most memorable homes we visit to sample was a farm and had a number of beautiful turkeys. Turkeys are quite curious creatures. They would gather around us while we sampled (believe me, it’s hard to keep a sample clean with a turkey around!), including a young male who was ready to mate. Apparently a male during mating season will peck at shiny objects thinking that it is a competing male. Our equipment has no shortage of shiny objects, so we had to endure a couple of “love taps” during our sampling routine.

Why did you decide to particpate in the SciFund Challenge?
I am a glutton for punishment! Kidding. The main reason is that I believe this is a really important project that has a direct impact on people’s lives. It seemed appropriate to reach out directly to the people for support.

What was the most difficult aspect of building your SciFund Proposal? What was your favorite?
The video! You don’t become a scientist for the fame, and talking to a video camera is about the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But despite the discomfort, it was my favorite creation.
Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue. My favorite microbe is the diatom (what’s yours?!!). And if you are scratching your chin wondering, “what is a diatom?”, do a google image search. You’ll love them.
Not Lee…

You can find Lee’s project here.

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