blair teaching mcnary 2
Blair Paulik discussing toxicology in the classroom

Blair Paulik and Jamie Minick, both SRP Trainees working on their PhDs in Dr. Kim Anderson’s lab (Project 4), traveled to McNary High School in the Salem, OR area on April 10th to teach students about environmental pollution.

This opportunity was initiated when a teacher from McNary contacted the Community Outreach & Engagement Core of the Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC). The opportunity was then given to the Department of Environmental & Molecular Toxicology’s graduate student organization, TEAM Tox. This is a great way for grad students to get out into classrooms.

Blair and Jamie’s interactive presentation highlighted where environmental pollution comes from, why environmental pollution is of concern, how humans are exposed to pollutants, and how scientists at Oregon State University are studying pollutants in the environment.

Jamie Minick presenting on environmental pollutants.
Jamie Minick presenting on environmental pollutants.

Throughout the day, Blair and Jamie taught 129 high school students from six different classes including chemistry, biology, and environmental science. The students showed genuine interest in the subject matter, asking questions about specific environmental pollutants and about science and college in general.

This year the EPA Partners in Technical Assistance Program (PTAP) Pilot has launched the first project with a school located near the Black Butte Mine Superfund Site in rural Cottage Grove, Oregon.

“The overall objective of PTAP is to expand opportunities for cooperation between EPA and colleges, universities or nonprofits with the shared goal of assessing and addressing the unmet technical assistance needs of impacted communities. Through PTAP, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations cooperate with EPA and voluntarily commit to assist communities with their unaddressed technical assistance needs. At this time, PTAP is in the pilot phase, working with NIEHS Superfund Research Program grantees as PTAP pilot partners. Following this pilot phase, the intention is to expand this project so that any interested colleges, universities or nonprofits may also join the PTAP.”

OSU Superfund Research Program has begun a partnership with EPA through this Pilot to help them expand upon their community outreach capabilities surrounding the Black Butte site.

On December 18, 2013, we met with Laurie Briggs, the Principal of the London School, because she had a strong desire to give her students and their families’ science and environmental health knowledge. About 100 rural K – 8th grade students go to London school.

Our visit included getting to know one another, listening to the needs of the school, and a school tour. We were impressed with the beauty and organization. The school built and maintains a 1/4-acre organic garden, and has a trail to a river flowing behind the property.  72% of the students qualify for free/reduced lunch, and delicious healthy meals are cooked on site.

For this project, we plan to:

1) Maintain communication through monthly meetings, and share notes and project milestones on our web site. [Our next meeting is January 30th, 2014 at OSU.]

2) Address community and educational needs.

  • Create a hands-on, project-based integrated curriculum related to the science of the Superfund site and mercury contamination that can serve as a model for other rural, small schools.
  • Discuss ways to educate the students and community and expand and build a sustainable partnership.

3) Provide training opportunities for SRP Trainees wanting outreach experience.

4) Help students understand career opportunities in environmental and life sciences.



Project Team from left Diana Rohlman (OSU SRP CEC), Alanna Conley (EPA, Region 10), Dan Sudakin (OSU SRP RTC), Laura Briggs (London School Principle), Naomi Hirsch (SRP RTC OSU). Not pictured: Corey Fisher (OSU SRP CEC), Melissa Dreyfus (EPA Headquarters Superfund Community Involvement Program), Kira Lynch, (EPA Region 10, Science and Tech Liaison), and Richard Muza (Region 10 - Black Butte Mine, Project Manager)
The Project Team from left Diana Rohlman (OSU SRP CEC), Alanna Conley (EPA, Region 10), Dan Sudakin (OSU SRP RTC), Laura Briggs (London School Principal), Naomi Hirsch (OSU SRP RTC). Not pictured: Corey Fisher and Molly Kile (OSU SRP CEC), Melissa Dreyfus (EPA Headquarters Superfund Community Involvement Program), Kira Lynch, (EPA Region 10, Science and Tech Liaison), and Richard Muza (Region 10 – Black Butte Mine, Project Manager)





A very powerful and sensitive instrument used to study trace amounts of chemicals is a gas chromatograph connected to a mass spectrometer, or GCMS. GCMS is especially useful for air samples, but it is also used to detect, quantify, and identify chemicals in water, soil, plant and animal tissue, and many other substances.

The GCMS can detect chemicals in amounts as small as a picogram. That is 0.000000000001 gram. One picogram is the equivalent of one drop of detergent in enough dishwater to fill a trainload of railroad tank cars ten miles long. Many of the pollutants found in air are present at concentrations lower than one picogram in a cubic meter of air. It is important for an the instrument to be able to detect these low concentrations.

The GCMS instrument is made up of two parts.

  1. The gas chromatography (GC) portion separates the chemical mixture into pulses of pure chemicals
  2. The mass spectrometer (MS) identifies and quantifies the chemicals.

The GC separates chemicals based on their volatility, or ease with which they evaporate into a gas. It is similar to a running race where a group of people begin at the starting line, but as the race proceeds, the runners separate based on their speed. The chemicals in the mixture separate based on their volatility. In general, small molecules travel more quickly than larger molecules.

The MS is used to identify chemicals based on their structure. Let’s say after completing a puzzle, you accidentally drop it on the floor. Some parts of the puzzle remain attached together and some individual pieces break off completely. By looking at these various pieces, you are still able to get an idea of what the original puzzle looked like. This is very similar to the way that the mass spectrometer works.

Gas chromatography (GC)

  • Injection port – One microliter (1 µl, or 0.000001 L) of solvent containing the mixture of molecules is injected into the GC and the sample is carried by inert (non-reactive) gas through the instrument, usually helium. The inject port is heated to 300° C to cause the chemicals to become gases.
  • Oven – The outer part of the GC is a very specialized oven. The column is heated to move the molecules through the column. Typical oven temperatures range from 40° C to 320° C.
  • Column – Inside the oven is the column which is a 30 meter thin tube with a special polymer coating on the inside. Chemical mixtures are separated based on their votality and are carried through the column by helium. Chemicals with high volatility travel through the column more quickly than chemicals with low volatility.

Mass Spectrometer (MS)

  • Ion Source – After passing through the GC, the chemical pulses continue to the MS. The molecules are blasted with electrons, which cause them to break into pieces and turn into positively charged particles called ions. This is important because the particles must be charged to pass through the filter.
  • Filter – As the ions continue through the MS, they travel through an electromagnetic field that filters the ions based on mass. The scientist using the instrument chooses what range of masses should be allowed through the filter. The filter continuously scans through the range of masses as the stream of ions come from the ion source.
  • Detector – A detector counts the number of ions with a specific mass. This information is sent to a computer and a mass spectrum is created. The mass spectrum is a graph of the number of ions with different masses that traveled through the filter.


The data from the mass spectrometer is sent to a computer and plotted on a graph called a mass spectrum.

Credit: Unsolved Mysteries of Human Health

The Unsolved Mysteries of Human Health web site was developed by the Environmental Health Sciences Center, another NIEHS-funded Center at OSU.  The GCMS section of the web site was developed in collaboration with Dr. Staci Simonich, Superfund Center Project 5 leader.  The interactive image above received about 37,000 pageviews this past year (up about 10,000 from the previous year). It is the most popular page coming out of our Centers.

Unfortunately, the interactive image does not currently work on an iPhone or iPad.