FROSTBURG, MD (June 24, 2019) Kane Samuel, a Frostburg State University senior majoring in chemistry, recently completed an internship at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), under the supervision of Associate Professor Mark Castro.
Although not required for his degree, Samuel pursued an internship after becoming interested in research during a microbiology course in his junior year.
After discussing his interest with Appalachian Laboratory Associate Director Heather Johnson in May 2018, Samuel toured the Lab and the next fall started a general laboratory internship with Laboratory Manager Katie Kline.
“Katie taught me so much about laboratory procedures, equipment, and professionalism,” said Samuel.
Then, one day, during a casual hallway conversation, Castro asked Samuel a scientific question. When Samuel returned to him at the end of the day with the right answer, the impressed scientist offered him the chance to work on a research project of his own.
“I knew then that he had a lot of potential; he was very persistent and confident,” said Castro. “I was excited to work with him, and it was very rewarding to watch him flourish.”
One of Samuel’s objectives for his internship project was to improve understanding of mercury concentrations in locally grown feed corn. Mercury concentration levels are a concern because we store mercury from the foods we eat in our tissue. When stored levels get too high, we can experience neurological symptoms, respiratory problems, and damage to the kidneys and central nervous system.
“At these research sites, we’ve been looking at how manipulating the water table affects nitrogen runoff from feed corn and soybean fields, but no one has been looking at mercury. No one has asked, ‘How might mercury be taken up by these crops?’” said Castro.
After collecting samples of soil, husks, leaves, and corn, and running them through specialized equipment designed to measure mercury levels, Samuel found the highest concentration of mercury in the soil attached to roots and the lowest levels in the corn itself.
“We were surprised to measure detectable mercury concentrations in all plant parts. The levels of mercury in these plants, however, were very low, much lower than the mercury content in fish. I would not be afraid to eat the corn and soybeans tested in our study,” said Castro.
Samuel recently presented his findings at a special scientific seminar held for local scientists entitled “Mercury concentrations in our food supply: The untold story.”
Beyond the skills and knowledge he gained from the research project, Samuel also gained a mentor from his internship.
“I look at Mark as a mentor inside and outside the laboratory. I used one of his published papers in my capstone class. Most students didn’t know the scientists whose papers they presented, but I was able to talk with him and ask questions as I prepared my presentation,” said Samuel.
What’s more, since Samuel had used the same equipment and chemistry in his internship work that Castro had used in the published paper, he had a much deeper understanding of the work he presented in the capstone.
"There is nothing like getting your feet wet and your hands dirty, so to speak, to learn about how science is done and how rewarding the discovery process is," said Appalachian Laboratory Director Eric Davidson. "The objective of our internships is to give undergraduate students hands-on experiences that may further spark their interests in pursuing graduate degrees and careers in science. I've seen that spark grow in Kane."
The Appalachian Laboratory is committed to providing internship opportunities for undergraduate students, especially for local students and those traditionally underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Currently, Scott McKinstry, a Frostburg State University Junior, is engaged in a research internship with Appalachian Laboratory Ph.D. student Joel Bostic. McKinstry, who also attended Garrett College, will be researching the sources and amounts of materials exported in rivers during storm events.
Samuel agrees on the value of experiences like these for undergraduates. “It’s really important for STEM students to get hands-on experience needed in their fields,” he said.
Following graduation in May, Kane Samuel started a research internship with the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore. The title of his current project is “Comparison of identification methods for fish bacterial pathogens using MALDI TOF and 16S gene sequencing."
About UMCES Appalachian Laboratory: The Appalachian Laboratory, a research center of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, is located at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Frostburg, Md. Scientists conduct research on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including air and water quality, wildlife management, and land conservation throughout the world, with an emphasis on the rich and diverse environments of Western Maryland and the broader Appalachian region. Visit www.umces.edu/al or facebook.com/UMCES. Follow UMCES-AL on Twitter @UMCES_AL.