Science is hard work!

Starting Monday of last week, I was officially done with all of the safety training and background reading and began the real work for my internship.  As an undergrad working in the labs at school, the logistics of the experiments that I do are for the most part already figured out for me, with this project at the EPA that is definitely not the case.  Monday was the first test run that I was a part of.  I went into work at about 10:00am and helped Caitlin make the artificial sea water for the chambers by adding nitrate, ammonium, and potassium compounds to five gallon jugs of water.  The concentrations of these compounds are our variables that we expect to change over the course of our experiment, so we must take samples before and after we run the experiment to be analyzed for changes.  Then we added the water solution to five 10-gallon cubitainers to be placed out into the marsh.  After lunch we went out to the marsh right outside the EPA building and began our long day in the field.  We had to add the chambers to the bases that we put out the Friday before and then we attached the cubitainers to the chambers with a long hose.  The way this experiment works is that you place the cubitainers below the chambers in the channel bed and as the tide rises, the pressure of the water forces the water into the chambers though the hose and then back out again as the tide falls.  I find it funny the easiest part of this whole process is running the experiment itself because after we got all of the cubitainers set up, we sat back and relaxed on the marsh for a few hours while only taking samples and dissolved oxygen measurements every 40 minutes.  After the experiment was done at about 8:00pm we had to take everything down and run about 30 samples in the spectrophotometer called the ISUS to test for nitrate content.  I didn’t get home until about 11:00pm.  All in all, the purpose of this experiment was to find out why our the nutrient levels that we were getting from the ISUS were lower than the nutrient levels that we were getting back from the lab at UC Santa Barbara.  We found out that the reason that we were getting a discrepancy was because we weren’t filtering our samples!  Something as simple as that could mess everything up.

This was my first taste of real science!  There are so many statistical, logistical, and experimental problems to work out.  For this experiment some of the issues that can make things difficult are: a lack of high enough tides, difficulties getting to a particular marsh, a lack of channels to put cubitainers in, a lack of marsh sites that have all of the habitats that we are looking for, inaccessibility to desirable sites because of private land ownership, problems running the experiment, slight mistakes in chamber building, inadequate sites to represent the whole estuary system, etc, etc.

Here’s a video of the different zones in the salt marsh:

The biggest aspect of working on this project is that everything here revolves around the tides.  So, if the high tide is not until late, we are out late, if the high tide is really early, we are out really early.  Because of this, I’ve spent several late nights this past week scouting potential sites up and down the estuary at high tide to make sure that they low marsh that we are trying to sample is flooding at high tide.  A lot of the time, the tides are not high enough to flood the low marsh, so when they are we must act fast to run our experiments on those days.

After running that first test, I realized that I need to start doing pushups to get stronger.  I am not particularly weak, but at only 100lbs lifting 20 gallon water jugs and carrying 10 gallon cubitainers in and out of the marsh requires a lot of energy.  I’m hoping that by the end of the summer I’ll be much more in shape.

Picture of the estuary that I took as we were scouting for sites.

This week, we will continue preparing for our next experiment which will begin around the 13th of July.  We are switching to “bladders” instead of cubitainers so we need to figure out which bladder will work the best.  We have to finalize the sites that we are going to go to for our experiment.  We also need to buy more supplies and continue to figure out the logistics to make this experiment as successful as it can be.  I’m hoping that this week will be slower (relatively) than last week. Three late nights a week are no fun, but I know I have more coming up.  I’m excited though because I get to do science and field work all day which is a lot of fun and is definitely my passion.

Check out my personal blog to see what I’m up to outside of work! Sara Duncan

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About Sara Duncan

Aloha everyone! My name is Sara Duncan and I am super excited to be spending this summer in Newport, Oregon with the Oregon Sea Grant Scholars Program. I grew up in central Massachusetts and am currently a senior at Hawaii Pacific University studying Environmental Science. I love being outdoors doing fieldwork. In Hawaii, my main project is to collect preliminary data on an ancient Hawaiian fish pond that is scheduled to be restored in the near future. I love being out there right next to the ocean especially because it’s so warm year round. Luckily, I was able to land this awesome internship with the Oregon Sea Grant for the summer and I am now in Newport working on a project for the EPA studying the nutrient removal of the wetlands in the Yaquina Estuary. I’ll have to admit though, that I am a bit cold here – average temp in the summer is less than 65°F! Stay tuned to learn more about my experiences! Also, check out my personal blogs: and

3 thoughts on “Science is hard work!

  1. Another great blog Sara!! I’m sure your old elementary and high school science teachers would love to read them.Hope your week goes well.

  2. So what about filtering the samples would change the nitrate readings? Is it a special kind of filter that’s used?

  3. Great question Sarah! The analyzer that we use is a spectrophotometer which means that it shines light through a sample at certain wavelenghts. The nitrate absorbs light at a certain wavelength so the less light reaching the sensor on the other side, the more nitrate in the sample. We think that the presence of suspended particles in the sample was able to cause our nitrate levels to read 4-5 micromolar lower than they were supposed to be. Removing the suspended particles using a filter gives us the correct measurements. Problem solved!

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