Margaret LaCourse

Chemistry and Biochemistry
“Development of an Enhanced Method for Ions in Seawater”

Margaret LaCourse

Aquariums are an important part of modern society, providing a way to explore the wonders of the ocean, a source of entertainment, and a platform for aquatic research. The National Aquarium in Baltimore makes its own seawater with a formulation of salts designed to match the composition natural seawater and provide aquatic life with the proper nutrients needed to grow and thrive. Assaying artificial seawater is essential for the proper maintenance of aquariums, and it is critical that ion concentrations be known with precision and accuracy. The goal of this project is to develop, optimize, and validate a robust method to determine halide ion (F-, Cl-, Br-, I-) concentrations in aquarium water. Previous efforts have resulted in an unvalidated method for determination of chloride and bromide in seawater, but the determination of fluoride and iodide is more challenging as their concentrations in seawater are relatively low, making it more difficult to detect them, and their chromatographic retention characteristics are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. I will develop and validate a single method to detect halide ions in aquarium water. The separation of the halide ions present in seawater will be performed using ion chromatography, which is a proven analytical technique. The separation will be optimized to resolve the halide series of ions in the shortest amount of time. The detection of the anions fluoride, chloride, and bromide is best achieved using conductivity detection, while the detection of iodide is best achieved using UV-Vis detection. This work will place the two detectors in series after separation by ion chromatography, so that all ions are detected in a single run. This approach should dramatically reduce the time of analysis.

Who is your mentor for your research, scholarship, or artistic project? (give full name and department) How did you arrange to work with this person?
Mentors for research:
    Dr. William R. LaCourse
    Dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences
    Professor of Analytical Chemistry
    Joshua Wilhide
    MCAC Manager
    College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences

In the summer of 2012, I was part of the Summer Biomedical Training Program (SBTP) at UMBC before my senior year of high school. I was placed in the Molecular Characterization and Analysis Complex (MCAC) under the guidance of Josh Wilhide and Dr. LaCourse. Yes, we are related. Yes, all conflict of interests have been properly settled. I fell in love with the lab during the summer, and was asked back. Ever since summer 2013, I have been working in this lab and have loved every second of it!

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?
When I first started in the MCAC, I tried a lot of different projects. I started with mass spectrometry. I tested arson samples on a DSA-TOF and then a new form of ionization on an LTQ. I did general lab tasks and helped with various other projects. Then, I tried chromatography to analyze samples from the National Aquarium in Baltimore (NAIB). Immediately, I knew I was in love. Since I started working with ion chromatography in summer 2014, it’s been my passion in research. I want to continue to understand more about chromatography and the separation of various compounds in water.

Is this your first independent research/scholarship/artistic project?
No. As stated previously, I have been researching in the MCAC for a while. I completed 3 credits of Chem399 and 3 credits of Chem499 during Fall 2014 and Spring 2015, respectively.

Do you get course credit for this work?

How much time do you put into it?
A lot. During the summer I work in the MCAC full time, and roughly half of my time is dedicated to my personal research. Of that, about half is running of routine samples for the National Aquarium, and the other half is effort for this project. During the semester, I put in 10-15 hours a week towards research.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award (URA) program?
I heard about the URA from both my mentor and announcements on myUMBC.

What academic background did you have before you applied for the URA?
Before applying for the URA, I was a chemistry major, so I had completed chemistry courses through Orgo1. Shortly after applying for the URA, I fell in love with environmental science, and have since switched my major.

Was the application difficult to do?
The URA application was difficult only because I had to shorten the length of my proposal so much. I tend to be loquacious when it comes to my research, so it was difficult but rewarding to shorten my research summary and purpose.

How much did your mentor help you with the application?
I first discussed the idea and proposal with my mentor. I wrote the rough draft independently. After completing the rough draft, I got feedback from my mentor and he approved the finalized version.

What has been the hardest part about your research?
The hardest part has been resolving unexpected problems and recovering from lost time that these caused.

What was the most unexpected thing?
To me, all research is unexpected. As scientists, the very nature of our work is to understand something that is not yet understood. In my opinion, every aspect has been unexpected. More concretely, I was surprised at the quantity of genuine joy I get when I have a breakthrough on a particularly difficult problem.

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?
My research seems to apply to my work in many of my classes. Learning how to think scientifically and analytically can be applied to any science course. Understanding of chromatography and scientific principles apply directly to chemistry courses. My understanding of the science behind aquarium water has greatly helped me in my environmental courses. Finally, the discipline and commitment required for research can be applied to all of my classes.

What else are you involved in on campus?
Most of my time is dedicated to my classes, my research, and my family, so I don’t have much time to be involved in many organizations on campus.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
My main advice to students who want to get involved in research is to do it for the right reasons and find something that you are passionate about. If you are doing research as a resume builder, it won’t feel very rewarding, but if you are researching something that you are passionate about because you genuinely want to, it is an amazing experience. Don’t be afraid to talk to people who are already involved in research. Professors, graduate students, and other undergraduates love to talk about their research experiences and this can open many doors for you.

What are your career goals?
I hope to obtain a position in which I can teach others and gain a better understanding of the workings of the world. Ideally I would like a career in environmental science that incorporates the use of chemistry.

Did you transfer to UMBC from another institution? Where?
No. I started at UMBC as a freshman.


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