Independent Study with John Farrell by Susan Wilson Graham ‘77
As we started our senior year at F&M Jim Graham and I committed to work on an independent project with Dr. JJ Farrell in the Chemistry department. While having an independent study project was not required for a Chemistry degree at the time, it gave us several opportunities. First it gave us an opportunity to apply some of what we had learned in three years as chemistry majors, second it was a “real world” application of the science, third it made us do some research into the environment and the impact man can have, and finally it gave Jim and me an opportunity to work together with a professor we had come to admire.
Our project was based on a fact and a premise. The fact, Lancaster County had the highest incident of “blue baby syndrome”. The premise, this syndrome is caused by high nitrate contamination in ground water resulting in decreased oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin in babies often leading to death. The groundwater is thought to be contaminated by leaching of nitrate generated from fertilizer used in agricultural lands and waste dumps.
Armed with this as our hypothesis we set out to measure nitrates (and eventually phosphates) in ground water and surface waters. We collected samples from wells, the river and taps around Lancaster. Our testing methodology was based on colorimetry and pH testing. We sampled different times of the year, different days of the week and different times of day. We were able to establish a base loading of nitrates in drinking and other waters which indicated numbers higher than reported in the literature for suburban and near rural water districts around the country. Throughout the year we were guided and encouraged by Dr. Farrell, both to question our results and to look for documentation to support or challenge our findings.
At the end of the project, we wrote a report of our results which would turn out to be the first of many technical reports/articles while in graduate school and beyond. I can’t say that the results were “world changing” or even “useful” to the scientific community. However, the research discipline, the data analysis, and the technical writing skills learned as a result of our independent study have served us well over the years.