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Summer Research project tests water quality for rainwater harvesting

Thinh Bill Pham '20 collects a sample of rainwater from a parking lot on campus

Thinh Bill Pham ’20 collects a sample of rainwater from a parking lot on campus

While most people hope for sunshine and clear skies in their summer forecast, Margaret Van Beek ’19 and Thinh “Bill” Pham ’20 are holding out for some more cloudy, rainy days. After all, rainwater is essential for their Summer Research project.

“I have seen the weather app a lot this summer,” Van Beek said.

“It’s my go to,” Pham agreed. “I use it more than Instagram.”

The pair has partnered with Sarah Sojka, a physics and environmental studies professor, to test and compare the quality of rainwater runoff from various sources around campus that could be used for rainwater harvesting. Rainwater harvesting is a technique of collection and storage of rainwater into natural reservoirs or tanks, or the filtration of surface water into subsurface aquifers.

Sojka formerly worked for a rainwater harvesting company, and said that while it is widely believed that roof runoff is cleaner than ground and surface level runoff, there has been little research done to support the claim.

Bill Pham '20 and Margaret Van Beek '19 test water samples in the environmental lab.

Bill Pham ’20 and Margaret Van Beek ’19 test water samples in the environmental science lab.

“It makes sense that roof runoff would be cleaner, but we’re also hoping to figure out how different it is,” Sojka said. “It may be that roof runoff is cleaner, but we want to at least have a sense of what the difference is and if someone could collect from parking lots or lawns for some uses. It just hasn’t been looked at as clearly as it should be.”

On rainy days, the group is gathering rainwater samples from the roof of the Student Center and the front lawn of Leggett Building as well as parking lots and sidewalks around campus. By the end of the Summer Research program, they hope to have three to five samples that they can test for PH, bacteria like e coli, and other contaminants. They are also compiling statistics from other sources into charts and graphs that show the differences between the various runoff sources.

Both students are interested in environmental science and the concept of rainwater harvesting.

“Basically, I just felt like it would be a cool opportunity,” Pham said. “When professor Sojka told me about the project, I was really interested and couldn’t wait to find out more.”

“My first year, I did research with professor Sojka on the filtering devices that get placed on the bottom of most rainwater harvesting systems,” Van Beek said. “We tested for e coli, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the project progressed and get more experience in the field.”



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