Kavya Pradhan ’14, Ludovic Lemaitre ’11, and Sarah Lawson, a physics professor, collect more bugs during the group’s outing to the creek.
Water swirled around Kavya Pradhan ’14 as she stepped into Blackwater Creek with a handful of test tubes. Her purple Honor Code T-shirt, half concealed by the chest waders she wore, stood out against the bright sunshine reflecting off the water.
Carefully, Pradhan filled each of the test tubes. She then returned to a sand bank where other students and Randolph faculty were counting the bugs found in piles of leaves pulled from the creek.
Kavya Pradhan ’14 helped lead research this summer examining the health of a nearby waterway.
“We’re trying to determine the health of the stream,” Pradhan said. “It’s important to know the health of the natural resources around you and how human activities are impacting them. And it’s really fun.”
For 10 years, Randolph students have conducted annual environmental assessments on Blackwater Creek, a major waterway in Lynchburg. They test the water’s bacteria and oxygen levels, count and classify organisms, and measure physical attributes. This summer, Pradhan decided to examine the decade’s-worth of data to discover how the creek’s health has changed over time.
Examining this data is especially interesting in light of the city’s recent extensive combined sewer separation project, designed to prevent wastewater from contaminating local waterways during heavy rainfall. “It’s really essential to see whether or not a remedial action is having an effect,” Pradhan said. “Otherwise, you might be spending millions of dollars on it without improving it.”
The College and its students have a long history studying Blackwater Creek. More than 40 years ago, R-MWC won a federal grant to conduct research that would help Lynchburg understand the environmental and sociological impact of a proposed park along the creek.
(L to R) Ludovic Lemaitre ’11; Sarah Lawson, a physics and environmental studies professor; Karin Warren, an environmental studies professor; and Mimi Joshi ’14 dig through leaves looking for bugs from Blackwater Creek.
Karen Patterson ’73 was one of 11 R-MWC students selected for that project. She studied the trees and soil surrounding the creek, while other students focused on water chemistry, wildlife, and city residents’ opinions of the park proposal. “We went to work every day and spent time in the field,” she recalled. “It was our first true research experience.”
“It had a huge influence on my career,” added Patterson, who spent the first two decades after college doing ecological research for a nuclear facility.
The final report concluded that it was feasible to establish a park there. Since then, the city has built several miles of trails and recreation facilities along the creek.
When Karin Warren, the Herzog Family Chair in Environmental Studies, joined the College in 2002, she realized Blackwater Creek would be a perfect lab for her students. “I wanted to set up research projects that would teach students essential knowledge and skills relevant to environmental science and also get them involved in the greater community in a meaningful way,” Warren said.
She asked Naomi Hollifield Ondrasek ’06 to help develop that idea during Summer Research that year. “One of my jobs was to look for sites that would be accessible for students,” Ondrasek said. “I went down there quite a few times exploring Blackwater Creek.” She chose two sites along the creek not far from the College. She also gathered materials and designed ways to teach students how to conduct the tests.
Pradhan is one of more than 300 students in the past decade who have worked on this project, including upper-level students who oversee and teach beginning students, Warren said. Each one of them has gained significant experience and knowledge.
“They get a hands-on understanding of urban water quality issues, including pollution sources, impacts, and remediation,” Warren said. “They also learn field techniques, and hopefully gain an enthusiasm for service learning. The field supervisors gain advanced training as well as valuable teaching experience.”
Kavya Pradhan ’14 sorts through debris in Blackwater Creek to collect bugs.
In addition to building students’ skills, this ongoing research is important to other environmental scientists who need to monitor the health of local waterways, said Kelly Hazlegrove, a regional biologist with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality who has attended presentations by Warren’s students.
“Due to budgetary constraints, we don’t often get out to smaller streams like Blackwater Creek,” Hazlegrove said. “Having students out there every year gives us a continuous picture of what is going on.”
Although the stream still needs improvement before it could be considered drinkable or swimmable, Pradhan’s research this summer showed positive movement. “Looking at the general trends, it does look like the stream is improving,” she said. However, she would need several more years of data to establish whether the changes are statistically significant.
Patterson was thrilled when she learned about Pradhan’s research, which included a perusal of the College’s 1971 report on the creek. “It never occurred to us that the College or the city would even think about using that data 40 years later,” Patterson said. “It’s rewarding to know it’s actually being pulled back off the bookshelf and looked at.”
Ondrasek, who is now working on post-doctoral studies at the University of California, Davis, is glad that students continue to do real research that is important for the community. “It makes me really proud of the school I came from.”