Nora Weathers ’16 first studied DDT, the infamously dangerous pesticide that has been banned in the U.S. since 1972, and its lingering existence in the environment in her spring 2015 “Superlab” course with Associate Professor of Chemistry Helen White. Max Findley ’15 had previously studied the pesticide (and its immediate breakdown products, known as DDX compounds) for his thesis, inspiring White, his advisor, to bring it to class as an area of inquiry.
“That preliminary [in-class] research was quite successful, so Katie Rowlett ’16 and I continued researching DDT for our thesis projects,” says Weathers. “The specifics of what we ended up research were both getting at the question of ‘Is this DDT still dangerous?’ Katie looked at short-term bioavailability while I looked at the long-term reservoirs. They ended up being quite complimentary projects.”
The result of this research was the chemistry major and environmental studies minor’s thesis, “Examining the Association of DDX Compounds to Sediment Matter,” born of samples from a salt marsh’s core. (The photo above shows Weathers and her classmates procuring those samples.)
This type of organic geochemistry research, though new for Weathers, set her on a new path, both academically and professionally.
“My thesis work has definitely influenced what I want to do,” she says. “I had been looking for the right intersection between environmental work and chemistry and I think I found it with geochemistry.”
What did you learn working on your thesis?
Well, I hadn’t done any organic geochemistry before Helen’s lab, and now I am hooked and want to stay in the field. Specifically, I certainly know way more about how contaminants act once released into the environment. I grew up as a bit of an environmental activist, but the science wasn’t necessary always there. Now I can look at a chemical structure and make a pretty good guess at what is going to happen to it if it is released into the environment. I also have inherited a bit of a pessimism—DDT was sprayed over 60 years ago and we are still dealing with the consequences now? What are we doing now that is going to be around in 60 years?
What are the implications for your research?
DDT is not an new issue—Rachel Carson was writing about the evils of DDT back in the ’60s. That being said DDT is very much still around. My research has some implications for remediation (removing contaminants from the environment), a topic that is still useful for highly contaminated sites. It can also be applied to other compounds. DDT is not the only hydrophobic organic contaminant, so understanding the long-term fate of this compound can help determine what is going to happen to other similar ones that are still being produced or used.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.