St. Olaf College | News

St. Olaf researchers examine local water quality

Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Paul Jackson and Logan Bocovich ’23 are analyzing how microplastics are affecting water quality along the Cannon River in Northfield.

A St. Olaf student and professor are spending their summer along the Cannon River Watershed, examining how tiny particles of plastic may be impacting local water quality.

Many scientists have studied microplastics and their impact on oceans and marine life, but this research is much less common when it comes to rural watersheds in Minnesota, says Paul Jackson, professor of chemistry and environmental studies, who is working on the summer Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI ) project with Logan Bocovich ‘23. The project is mainly taking place at the Cannon River in Northfield. 

“While the Cannon River drains to the Mississippi, which then outputs to the Gulf of Mexico, we anticipate that microplastics are more ubiquitous in these upstream systems than previously realized,” Jackson says.

One of the main goals of the research is to determine the quantity and type of microplastics that are impacting the water quality of local watersheds. Microplastics are tiny particles of human-produced plastic that aren’t always visible to the naked eye.

This CURI program builds on earlier work conducted by St. Olaf students in an environmental chemistry course, as well as providing groundwork for future research. 

“Our findings will allow us to understand how many microplastics are in the local waters and this can guide future research on what the impact of those plastics may be to local aquatic life,” Bocovich says.

Jackson says he was motivated to advise the project because it connects directly with the local community and environment.

“I have always felt drawn to understanding the place in which I live: the cultural, the social, the physical and the ecological,” he says. “All of these facets constantly remind me about the complex, interdependent systems on which we depend and are a part.”

Bocovich, a chemistry major, is also aware of the importance of understanding the natural world.

“This project allows me to have a hand in observing the world around me with the hopes that my work can further scientific knowledge,” he says. “Ultimately, I hope that this knowledge can help guide solutions to the environmental challenges that the natural world is experiencing.”

Bocovich plans to attend graduate school to study organic or environmental chemistry. He said the CURI project has solidified his interest in research and allowed him to further develop his knowledge of environmental chemistry.