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Student Researches Water Quality, Earns Scholarship

Rachel Mahoney (center) with Erin Christensen.

Rachel Mahoney was used to getting nothing but “A”s in all her classes, so when she started in Microbiology in September, it was a rude awakening. A “B” was looming on the horizon. But she was quiet and too shy to speak with her professor. She was also a little overwhelmed, balancing a full load of classes and working two jobs: one at a restaurant and another as a peer mentor at MCC.

But she was also determined. She quit the restaurant job and focused on her studies. She got that A.

Even better, she summoned the courage to talk with her professor, Erin Christensen. Dr. Christensen saw potential in her student and asked if she’d like to participate in a research study.

“I didn’t know anything about microbiology or how it related to real life,” Ms. Mahoney said. “But I immediately said I was very interested in this opportunity.”

The project was examining water samples in the Elizabeth Marina to check bacteria levels and to see if they have become resistant to antibiotics.

So, along with her research partner, Ms. Mahoney gathered six water samples, brought them back to the lab, and allowed them to grow. They then identified bacteria that grew from the water samples using biochemical tests.

“We’re concerned that people toss old prescription drugs down the drain, or flush them down the toilet, which can get into the water system,” Dr. Christensen said. “These drugs may affect the bacteria and make it resistant to antibiotics. This is not a good thing.”

The project confirmed that indeed there were resistant bacteria in the water.

“The bacteria may have picked up a gene that gives it the ability to be resistant to antibiotics,” Ms. Mahoney said. “We need further study to determine why they are there and whether they can spread their resistance to other bacteria in the water.”

Ms. Mahoney, who is graduating in May and transferring to Rutgers University, will be presented a $3,000 scholarship from the New Jersey Water Environment Association at its annual conference in Atlantic City May 10. The scholarship committee lauded her work on the project.

Dr. Christensen explained that while she oversees the research effort, she wants her students to work independently.

“I want them to take charge of the project and make their own decisions,” she said. “Rachel did a great job with it. Her passion stood out. I’m so proud of her.”

Ms. Mahoney, a biology major, said her research project has affected her career goals. She now wants to get an advanced degree and work as a research scientist in the environmental field.

“It makes me feel like I’m making a difference and doing something meaningful,” she said. “And that’s important to me.”