Although Cape Cod is a vacation destination for most, Rachel Carnahan ’12 spent her summer on Cape Cod hard at work. An economics major and math and environmental studies minor, Carnahan interned at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (WBNERR) in East Falmouth, Mass.
One of 27 national estuarine research reserves in the country, WBNERR studies the estuary at Waquoit Bay, hosts camps and educational programs for adults and children, and operates a visitor center. While working at the reserve, Carnahan was responsible for a data analysis project. Since 2001, WBNERR has collected data on the water quality of Waquoit Bay, and Carnahan aided in the first analysis of the information, looking for any trends in nitrogen and dissolved oxygen levels.
Carnahan, with research partner Alison Rogers – a student at Mt. Holyoke College, found that there was sufficient statistical evidence to suggest that high levels of nitrogen are being deposited in the bay by groundwater. In Cape Cod in particular, this is a major issue due to the high amount of septic tanks used by residents – nearly 85 percent of the cape uses a septic tank.
“Septic systems do not filter out nitrogen, which is deposited into the groundwater through the septic tanks – eventually flowing into the rivers, bays and ocean,” explains Carnahan. “Excess nitrogen causes algae blooms and fish kills. Not only is this detrimental to the marine life, but also effects human’s uses of the ocean for recreation and the fishing and tourist economies.”
Carnahan entered the internship well-prepared, having taken classes on water quality in the environmental studies department, as well as statistics and econometrics courses in the economics department. She also found that the experience, which concluded with a final presentation to the staff of the reserve, helped to inform her plans for the future.
“I liked analyzing the data and looking at the policy implications of our findings. Even though we have identified septic tanks as a serious problem on Cape Cod, the logistics of actually switching to sewer or another alternative are quite complex,” says Carnahan, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy, with a focus on environmental policy or analysis.
“This internship gave me great exposure to analyzing real data and a large data set, as well as allowing me to see how our work could influence policy in the area.”
The picture above was taken at Rachel Carnahan’s final presentation to the staff. Pictured are Alison Rogers of Mt. Holyoke College ’12; Tonna-Marie Surgeon-Rogers, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve; and Rachel Carnahan.