Diving in Head First: Kathryn Hyduchak ’18 and Nathalia Benavides ’18

Benavides (left) and Hyduchak

On a hot summer day, nothing refreshes like a tall glass of cold water. As you reach to turn on the faucet, most people can generally assume that the water is clean and safe to drink. But exactly how clean is your local water, and how much do commercial filters help the cause?

Kathryn Hyduchak ’18 and Nathalia Benavides ’18 are studying water quality as part of the Summer Scholars Program. The students will collaborate on two projects: measuring the effectiveness of household water filters in removing lead and testing local water supplies for any detectable levels of pharmaceuticals. The project is mentored by Jean Smolen, Ph.D., associate dean of mathematics, natural sciences and computer science and director of the program. Peter Zurbach, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, is providing assistance with instrumentation.

“We will start by perfecting our methods using spiked samples,” Benavides explains. “We’ll use gas chromatography, which separates analytes by vaporizing them, to quantify pharmaceutical concentrations. For the lead determination, we use an instrument called ICP-OES, inductively couple plasma-optical emission spectroscope, which can detect trace metals. Once we are certain of our methods, we will collect water from local streams and the Schuylkill River for analysis.”

Hyduchak, a chemical biology major from Scranton, Pennsylvania, says that she chose to work on the project because of its global relevance.

“Water quality has always been a major concern throughout the world, not only in developing nations, but even in countries such as our own,” she says. “The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought to everyone’s attention the importance of clean and drinkable water, and we wanted to research the methods of testing for lead in our own area.”

Benavides, a dual chemical biology and French major from Weston, Florida, adds that there are many other contaminants, in addition to lead, to consider when testing drinking water.

“More medicine is being administered to the public than actually being consumed, and because there is no national standard for disposing of pharmaceuticals, many people flush their unused medication down the drain,” she explains. “That could lead to detectable levels of contaminants in the local water supply, which is harmful to people, wildlife and the environment.”

Both students sought places in the Summer Scholars Program to engage in high-level research with a faculty member.

“Working in this setting allows me to be able to fully immerse myself in a topic,” Benavides says. “Doing research has given me control of my education and enhanced my understanding of topics I have previously learned in my lecture courses.”

Hyduchak adds that “this kind of research allows for more freedom and creativity than assigned laboratory exercises. I can take the time to think of and test out several different possible solutions to a problem.”

Smolen, who has been studying water quality with her students for years, praises Benavides and Hyduchak’s commitment to the topic.

“Because they are passionate about water quality, Nathalia and Kathryn have been delving into the corresponding scientific literature and mastering their analytical techniques,” Smolen says.

Outside the research lab, Hyduchak is a member and the scholarship chair of SJU’s chapter of the Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity, vice president of the Alpha Epsilon Delta Pre-Health Honor Society, and a Resident Assistant. Benavides is a sister and director of academics for SJU’s chapter of the Alpha Phi sorority, secretary of the Biology Club, and a member of both the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society and Pi Delta Phi French Honor Society.