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CSB senior receives $50,000 grant from U.S. environmental agency

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August 17, 2016

By Morgan McCormack '17

Sarah McLarnan

Sarah McLarnan '17.

Water, something most of us rarely think about, has become senior Sarah McLarnan's focus.

The College of Saint Benedict environmental studies and biology major from Victoria, Minnesota, was awarded a Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Undergraduate Fellowship with a grant of $50,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in November.

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The GRO Undergraduate Fellowship offers undergraduate fellowships for students in environmental fields of study each year. The agency awarded 35 new fellowships this year, and these students receive a grant of up to $50,000 for support during their junior and senior years of undergraduate study and an internship at an EPA facility during the summer following their junior year. Each applicant is also required to publish a paper on their research, and attend a conference.

As part of the fellowship, each student had to produce a research project that fits one of the EPA's goals. McLarnan chose the Clean Water Act, specifically researching the bacteria contamination of Plum Creek in southern Stearns County, which has been deemed "impaired" by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The creek meanders through several area lakes before emptying in the Mississippi River north of Clearwater, Minnesota.

In recent years, residents living near the creek have taken it upon themselves to take samples and find a solution to the pollution. The MPCA requires three to four years of levels below the contamination level for a creek to be taken off the impaired list.

McLarnan's research on the creek — which began in May — could help. 

"Our main question right now is where this pollution is coming from, is it from human or natural (e.g., wildlife) sources? The answer to that question may mean two very different courses of action." said McLarnan by phone from Alaska, where she is fulfilling her internship opportunity studying Native Alaskan adaptation to climate change. 

"For example, if the creek has a human-caused problem, can we fix it? What resources are needed to do so and what is the best way to achieve a positive outcome? If the E. coli contamination is coming from natural sources, is it really considered a problem that needs to be fixed and is E. coli the best indicator of bacterial impairment? We have to figure out where the impairment is coming from before we know what direction this project will take next," McLarnan said. 

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With possibilities that the contamination is from an outside source, McLarnan and her team must test more than the water at Plum Creek.

"Our project is doing more in-depth sampling than previously performed and looking at the streambed sediments. We're exploring the possibility that the periodic E. coli impairment is from streambed sediment being churned up when the water is moving more quickly and it may cause the higher levels of E. coli," McLarnan said. 

McLarnan's team — her research adviser Joe Storlien, assistant professor of environmental studies at CSB and SJU, and SJU environmental studies major Pearce Jensen — has been in contact with her while gathering samples from the creek. When she returns to campus in the fall, McLarnan will finish sampling and begin analyzing the data.

Along with Storlien and Jensen, McLarnan is also working with the Plum Creek Neighborhood Network, Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, the MPCA and E. coli expert Mike Sadowsky's research team at the University of Minnesota.

She has also had the help of several other CSB/SJU professors to keep motivated and continue her research.

"This opportunity was very largely the product of truly invested professors. I'm really grateful that they worked so hard to find me this project and worked with me on the application. It's been a great example of how Saint Ben's and Saint John's serves its students with really invested professors. I feel very lucky for that," McLarnan said.

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