MDI Biological Laboratory
MDI Science Café

Digging Deep: Students Well-Equipped to Make Change

  • October 17, 2022
  • 5:00 - 6:00 pm
  • Online

Residents of Maine rely heavily on private wells for drinking water, but few have their wells regularly tested for arsenic, a common, naturally occurring element that leaches out of the bedrock and poses substantial health threats.

Arsenic has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the environmental contaminant with the biggest impact on human health. According to the EPA, long-term exposure, even at low levels, can lead to numerous severe health problems, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and reproductive, developmental and cognitive issues, including lower IQ.

Jane Disney, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Environmental Health at MDIBL, was awarded a five-year, $1.2 million Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in 2018 to explore whether engaging students in well water monitoring leads to improved public health. The program is called Data to Action: A Secondary School-based Citizen Science Project to Address Arsenic Contamination of Well Water or All About Arsenic for short.

Since the program’s start, teachers and students from 16 Maine and 11 New Hampshire schools have sampled more than 3,000 wells for arsenic, lead, uranium, and other toxins. The water samples are analyzed at the Dartmouth Trace Elements Analysis Core and students grapple with the dataset as part of their school curriculum. In the last year, Jane Disney, Ph.D., and Hannah Lust, Ph.D.,  have partnered with College of the Atlantic geologist Sarah Hall, Ph.D., to explore the seasonal changes of arsenic levels, and expand the geographic reach of the program. Engaging teachers, families, and municipal offices, they have empowered students to research, collect and analyze data, and advocate for improved community health.

Jane Disney, Ph.D.

Dr. Disney is Associate Professor of Environmental Health, Director of Research Training and Outreach, and Director of the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at MDIBL. She collaborates with researchers across multiple disciplines to remedy threats to public health and clean the waters on and around Mount Desert Island. Specifically, Disney studies citizen science and watersheds. She holds a Ph.D. in salmonid genetics from Washington State University. 

Sarah Hall, Ph.D.

Dr. Hall is part of the Earth Science faculty at College of the Atlantic and is T. and Robert M. Bass Chair in Earth Systems and Geosciences. She is a geomorphologist studying the processes shaping the earth’s surface, and her research interests include mountain building, past glaciations, active faulting and the erosion of landscapes. Hall is also involved in two local water quality projects: watershed monitoring in and around Acadia National Park and characteristics of private well water. She holds a Ph.D. in earth and planetary sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

Hannah Lust, Ph.D.

Dr. Lust is the lead coordinator of the All About Arsenic Science and Education Partnership Award (SEPA) project. Collaborating with students, teachers, and scientist partners throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, this project focuses on secondary school-based citizen science aimed at addressing arsenic contamination of well water. In addition to her efforts coordinating the SEPA grant, Hannah is also involved in other educational fellowships at MDIBL such as the INBRE and REU research programs. She holds a BA in Biology and Psychology from the University of Maine at Farmington and Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from Dartmouth College.