The United States Department of Defense recently awarded a $1.4-million grant to Dartmouth professors Celia Chen and Joseph Shaw of the biology department to study toxic metals in estuaries in the northeast portion of the country.
The Strategic Environment Research and Development Program awards such grants in hopes of combatting high levels of pollution caused by the U.S. government's increase in military action.
Chen and Shaw are a part of a larger group of scientists from universities across the country that will study how metals, including arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead are deposited into sediments before traveling up the food web.
"Metal contaminants can adversely impact estuarine communities," Chen said. "There is a heightened concern because humans can be exposed through the consumption of seafood that comes from these habitats."
The Defense Department has historically been a large polluter whose operations generate a lot of waste.
"In the past the Department of Defense has had a free pass in terms of environmental regulations, but that has changed. They have become very interested in not wanting to pollute and wanting to clean up pollution they caused." Shaw said. "We're not involved in defense issues per se, but it's a consequence of defense issues."
Chen and Shaw's research builds off the knowledge that estuaries are the primary habitants and breeding grounds for snails, mussels and zooplankton. These organisms, contaminated by toxic metals, then enter the food web where they are eaten by larger fish, which end up with even higher levels of toxins and then potentially pass these toxins onto humans.
"We're trying to better understand how metals move from the sediment through the food web and ultimately into the fish," Chen said.
Chen, one of the principal researchers on the project, is a member of Dartmouth's toxic metals research program, a multidisciplinary program that addresses toxic metals in the environment.
Chen received her master's degree in oceanography and has always had a desire to work with marine systems, she said. When the Department of Defense solicited researchers to work in this field, she knew that it was a good fit for her research interests.
For the past two years Chen and Shaw have used small pilot funds from different sources to collect preliminary data. The project will officially begin in April, at which time they will travel to different sites, including the Gulf of Maine and the highly contaminated Providence River. The two researchers plan to hire Dartmouth students to assist in their study.
Chen, who received both her undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Dartmouth, is grateful for the opportunities that the College has provided.
"Dartmouth has made a huge difference in my life. As far back as my undergraduate work in the '70s, I did a senior thesis which made me realize I really love research," Chen said. "Dartmouth has been good to me."