An avid fisher and water-enthusiast, Alex Gatch ’16 is spending his summer working as a Finger Lakes Mercury Project lab-technician intern for the Finger Lakes Institute (FLI). Through the position, he conducts scientific analysis of mercury levels in local fish as part of the mercury project launched earlier this year.
Lisa Cleckner, Ph.D. and director of the FLI, is the principal investigator of the project, which was approved for funding by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in late 2014. The study is an assessment of mercury dynamics in aquatic food webs of the Finger Lakes, and field work officially began in May.
Having spent the past two summers working for the FLI’s Watercraft Steward Program, Gatch’s new role with the mercury project is a quasi-continuation of previous work. Stationed at a Cayuga Lake boat launch, his previous role as a steward involved assisting watercraft operators in inspecting their boats for aquatic invasive species, with the aim of preventing their spread via watercrafts. During academic years, Gatch continued work with the FLI while balancing his coursework as a biology and environmental studies double major.
In the fall of 2014, Gatch studied abroad in Australia and took part in frequent snorkeling trips and enjoyed “breathtaking ocean views.” Hesitant to exchange his flippers for textbooks after returning to the states, Gatch contacted Cleckner to inquire about aquatic fieldwork opportunities at the FLI. “She mentioned the possibility of a long-term project that I could start once I got back from Australia, and I was thrilled,” says Gatch.
As a precursor to his summer work with the mercury project, Gatch spent two to three months reading scientific papers to catch up on the current science of mercury. With a dissertation in limnology and ecotoxicology, post-doctoral researcher Roxanne Razavi, Ph.D., has also acted as a fundamental mentor to Gatch throughout the study.
Other investigators on the mercury project include HWS Director of Introductory Biology Laboratories Susan Flanders Cushman ’98, HWS Professor Environmental Studies John Halfman, FLCC Conservation Professor and Muller Field Station Director Bruce Gilman and FLCC Professor John Foust. Cushman is sampling tributaries for particles, aquatic insects such as mayflies and dragonflies, and small fish, specifically blacknose dace and creek chub that are bio-indicators of mercury concentrations in streams. Halfman is conducting assessments of water quality of the lakes and streams. Gilman and Foust are collecting in-lake fish such as yellow perch and alewives as well as other species such as walleye, lake trout and smallmouth bass.
Over the course of the summer, Gatch has helped take monthly samples from Honeoye, Canandaigua, Seneca, Cayuga, and Owasco lakes. The process involves setting nets at specific locations within the lakes, targeting seven to eight species that act as suitable representatives of the local fish population.
After fieldwork is complete “samples are brought back to the lab where I process them,” says Gatch. “Soon, Roxanne and I will bring around 120 fish back to the lab to fillet. Finally, we analyze the fish in order to detect their mercury levels.”
In addition to gaining professional exposure, Gatch notes that the most rewarding part of his work is being able to bridge the gap between the scientific world and the general community. “I am learning what we have to watch out for when it comes to the local presence of mercury,” he says. “I like that this project allows us to set future warnings for the public while informing them how to stay healthy.”
Gatch will continue his work on the mercury project until graduation next year, while also continuing his involvement with the HWS rugby team and bowling club, the latter of which he co-founded with friend Dominic Facciponte ’16.
“My ultimate goal is to receive a Ph.D. in fisheries biology,” says Gatch, “so this internship has played an integral role in guiding my future.”