Jenna Luek successfully defended her research in December to earn a Ph.D. She talked to us about how growing up outside of Pittsburgh encouraged her scientific path, which led her to better understand hydraulic fracturing fluids.
What are you researching? I study the diverse chemicals present in hydraulic fracturing fluids and wastewaters. I’m interested in identifying unique chemicals that can be used as tracers of hydraulic fracturing activities so if these fluids are spilled in the environment, we can pinpoint if the source of contamination was actually a hydraulic fracturing well.
Why it makes a difference: In my hometown, hydraulic fracturing took off while I was studying chemistry and environmental science in college. Everyone had so many questions about what was in the fluid and if they should lease out their land to drilling and hydraulic fracturing companies. We are still trying to sort out a lot of questions about the fluids in the scientific community, particularly about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and whether they are toxic. We also don’t know if they are stable or readily degraded when they enter the environment.
I want to stay in environmental science and help protect clean air and clean water, as we are still dealing with legacy incidents and constantly learning of new accidental releases of toxic chemicals to the environment.
How did you get interested in environmental science? I remember reading in our local newspaper as a young teenager that the Connoquenessing Creek—which was down the street and where I swam and played every year—had been deemed one of the most polluted rivers in the country. The biggest water quality issue stemmed from high-nitrate levels dumped by a steel manufacturer upstream. There were frequent postings that the water should not be consumed by pregnant women or infants. As I got older, I learned more about the environmental legacy of nearby Pittsburgh, learning terrifying stories of air pollution, such as the infamous Donora Fog, a fatal incident caused when an atmospheric inversion trapped the polluted air from zinc smelting in the valley. I want to stay in environmental science and help protect clean air and clean water, as we are still dealing with legacy incidents and constantly learning of new accidental releases of toxic chemicals to the environment.
Why choose the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science? I met my adviser on a research cruise to study water chemistry in the Chesapeake Bay. We started talking about hydraulic fracturing and all of the unanswered questions about how these fluids change. In 2012, I contacted him and asked if he would be interested in taking a Ph.D. student on to pursue these questions. He had new ideas and new analytical chemistry techniques ideal for asking my questions of how the chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid change and interact when they enter the environment.
Share an experience that stands out most about your time with UMCES. I have been incredibly lucky to be able to pursue my research in hydraulic fracturing as samples are, generally, incredibly challenging to come by. I’m very excited about my recently published paper, "Halogenated Organic Compounds Identified in Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewaters Using Ultrahigh Resolution Mass Spectrometry," where we identified halogenated organic chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluids. We suspect these fluids are not intentionally added to these fluids, but are instead formed from chemical reactions between added chemicals and chemicals derived from the shale rocks. Our preliminary results were used as the basis for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded in 2016.
What’s the most important thing people can do to help the environment? Be educated about what is happening in your community, learn to read and understand your local water quality report, learn what is happening at the state and national level that can affect air and water quality, and vote to protect these important resources!
What are your future plans? I accepted a post-doctoral position at the University of New Hampshire, and will continue my research in hydraulic fracturing with a researcher I’ve been collaborating with for the last three years. I’m looking forward to learning more about genomics and learning new biotechnology tools.