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ODU Master's Student a Good Neighbor to Waterfront Community

Manju Nagarajan

To the hundreds of Colonial Place and Riverview residents who live along Knitting Mill Creek in Norfolk, Old Dominion University oceanography graduate student Manju Nagarajan is a good neighbor.

Evidence of her neighborly deeds was on display Saturday, April 28, at the Lafayette RiverFest, a well-attended day of music, games, river activities, art displays and environmental exhibits at which dozens of ODU students and faculty members were volunteers. The festival was held on the Colonial Place waterfront less than a mile from ODU's main campus.

In the festival's "science tent," Nagarajan was ready and eager to explain the research that she did in partnership with her adviser, Fred Dobbs, an ODU professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, and the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership (LWP). Her data were presented on a poster titled "Bacteriological Water Quality of Knitting Mill Creek, an Arm of the Lafayette River."

Dobbs became interested in the work of the grass-roots LWP more than five years ago, and it led in 2010 to Nagarajan launching the first-ever long-term probe of water quality in Knitting Mill Creek. The work was supported by a $2,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that was awarded to the LWP and the Friends of Norfolk's Environment.

This Citizen Monitoring Grant gave Nagarajan the opportunity not only to conduct a master's research project, but also to teach LWP members how to take water samples and test them for fecal-indicator bacteria, E. coli and enterococci.

The analysis, done weekly in 2010 and biweekly last year, gave the LWP baseline data about bacterial pollution in Knitting Mill Creek. "We found distinct seasonal trends, with concentrations spiking during the warmer months," Nagarajan said. The results include summertime fecal-indicator bacterial levels that could make Knitting Mill Creek unsafe - according to federal standards - for many recreational uses.

The analysis also showed that pollution increased after heavy, extended rains, which indicates that feces are being washed into the creek.

Nagarajan, who already has a master's degree in microbiology from H.N.B. Garhwal University in northern India and is working on another in ocean and earth sciences with Dobbs, said she is trying now to do some "source tracking." She wants to take her Knitting Mill Creek analysis one step further to determine how much of the pollution is coming from human waste, or from the droppings of geese, ducks, dogs, cats and sea gulls.

"If it's mostly from geese and ducks, there's not much we can do," Nagarajan said. "But we can work on the rest, such as urging people to properly dispose of their pets' feces."

John Stewart, president of the LWP, praised the collaboration between his group and ODU scientists. "This ODU/community interaction is leading to valuable research and a growth in understanding among local citizens about the rigors of the scientific method. It was outreach on ODU's part and inreach for us.

"We learned from Manju while supporting her logistically, and we all added to the overall understanding of bacterial pollution in the creek," Stewart said.

At the RiverFest, Stewart was looking for volunteers, from the ODU community and elsewhere, for his group's next project, "Eyes on the River." This will involve people who live on or near the Lafayette keeping watch for algal blooms on the river. This monitoring will be led by Harold Marshall, ODU professor emeritus and Eminent Scholar in biological sciences.

Other biology students at ODU are working currently with the LWP on wetlands restoration.

This article was posted on: May 1, 2012

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