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FEW YEARS AGO , the smell of gasoline at the Food 'N Fuel convenience store and gas station in Greenfield began to worry the people who lived next door, and others in the neighborhood who in the evening walk along that stretch of Routes 5 & 10. The neighbors reported the smell to the fire department, which in turn alerted the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP confirmed that underground tanks were leaking petroleum into the soil. Confronted with the long-term cost of clean-up, the owners declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site.
The situation is unfortunate, and more unfortunate still is the fact that it's hardly unique. Thousands of gas stations in Massachusetts present similar problems, according to engineering professor Sharon Long '84. That's Long's bad news. Her good news is that something can be done about it, and she doesn't even have to leave the lab to show you what.
Long is an environmental microbiologist and a specialist in bioremediation the use of microorganisms to remedy environmental problems. Holding a color slide up to the light in her Marston Hall lab, Long squints at an image of amorphous yellow splotches on a black background. Bacteria as small as a tenth of a millimeter across, stained on a membrane filter and viewed under a microscope, these may look like the bad guys to you and me. But Long sees their potential. Certain microscopic "bugs," as she calls them, use spilled petroleum for food, and can restore a damaged patch of land or sea to health without the introduction of still more synthetic chemicals.
A natural clean-up can take as long as seventy years, but "we can shorten that time to one to two years, maybe even less, depending on the size of the spill, by applying engineered technology," says Long. Helpful microorganisms already exist in the soil.
Sharon Long assessing the needs of friendly microorganisms at the Food 'N Fuel site.
"The key question is, what are the environmental factors slowing them down?" Once that question is answered, the next step is developing techniques to remove the barriers.
Soil aeration and addition of nutrients are two ways of clicking nature's fast-forward button, Long says. Another choice "which the Environmental Protection Agency used to call `Do Nothing' until that started scaring people" is simply monitoring the site and ensuring that the spill doesn't seep further. That still may sometimes be an option in some cases, she adds, provided there are no imminent hazards.
In the case of the boarded-up Food `N Fuel in Greenfield, the "Do Nothing" option can be dispensed with. Long got involved in the project last summer, brought in by Bruce Tease, a colleague from the environmental science program, who had become interested in the property after driving by it on his way to work each day. Working in concert with town officials, the scientists hope to clean up the site with an eye toward creating a green space and a tourism booth. Some $80,000 in federal funding has given the project a solid start.
"It's a really nice community effort," Long says. "We've got some students working with us as well, which is nice for them in terms of their resumes; it's a real integrated team." That integrated team has needed to be hardy as well. Long relishes doing research outdoors, and New England weather doesn't stop her. "I love working in the field," she declared one day last winter, then paused. "I have to call public works and ask them not to pile snow on the area," she murmured, and made a note in her calendar. Then she opened a simple canvas bag and pulled out the tools of the trade: hammer, wrenches, stopwatch, wooden stakes, and a handful of plastic, neon-green streamers.
She and two students would be out the next day, staking out the Greenfield site and installing "wells" at various points on the property: quarter-inch-wide, stainless steel pipes sunk twelve feet below the surface of the ground and used to gauge how quickly the petroleum is breaking down. "Microorganisms using the petroleum as food give off a higher-than-normal amount of carbon dioxide," explains Long, holding up one of the slim pipes. "In general, the higher the carbon dioxide level, the greater the biodegradation rate."
S ONE OF JUST A FEW SCIENTISTS in the College of Engineering, Long is a bit of an oddity there, she notes. Asked to define the distinction, she says that scientists "are looking to discover something about the world," whereas engineers are looking to apply the knowledge from that discovery, to create a system that brings about a particular result. And though she lauds the camaraderie of the civil and environmental engineering department, where she has been a faculty member for five years, she nonetheless identifies herself as a scientist.
"Good scientists never lose their inquisitiveness," she says. "They keep asking, `Why? Why do we do this a certain way? Is that really the best way to to do this?' A good scientist always wants to know more." (A good scientist is also, Long adds, precise a trait necessary, too, in a talented baker; this scientist regularly regales her colleagues with cream puffs and other pastries.)
Working in engineering, says Long, allows her to explore a range of subjects: "The kinds of projects I work on may not seem to have much in common, but they all have biological aspects," she says. "In environmental engineering, you can study waste, water, or air. I do waste and water, two out of three." Her current pursuits include tracking the sources of microbial contaminants in drinking water collected in reservoirs. Yet another project focuses on the stabilization of sludge more properly known as biosolids removed from water at the Deer Island wastewater treatment plant in Boston.
The Deer Island biosolids are dried into pellets, stored in silos for several weeks, then transported by rail to Florida, where they enrich the sandy soil in citrus groves by adding organic matter. The problem with this salutary method of treatment, Long explains, is that under certain conditions, dormant microorganisms in the pellets may become active and generate heat, and the pile actually ignites. Among the solutions that she and colleague Michael Switzenbaum are contemplating is treating the pellets with food preservatives which, Long notes, are nontoxic, blend with the environment, and are readily available.
"I love working in the field," says Long, and makes a note. "I have to ask them not to pile snow on the site."
A UMass grad who grew up in California, Long claims that as a youngster she was "one of the nerdy kids." It's difficult to picture her that way. She is friendly and outgoing; students and colleagues stream in and out of her office with questions and greetings. As an undergrad, Long initially contemplated a career in medicine, but a necessary course left her squeamish. "Biology and anatomy were not for me," she laughs. She graduated in environmental science and went on to earn her master's and doctoral degrees in environmental science and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Between her master's and doctoral studies, she spent some time working in the private sector, which was satisfying, she says up to a point.
"In two years in business, I'd been promoted as far as I could go, and I couldn't see doing the same thing for thirty years," she said. "And I really missed being around young people who were interested in knowledge." She was also influenced by the example set by mentors from her undergrad days, Robert Walker of environmental science and Edward Klekowski of biology. "When you're in the world and sort of being an adult for the first time, it can be very intimidating," she says. "I really want to teach and have the kind of impact on students that Bob and Ed had on me."
Long's efforts to mentor extend beyond the campus. Along with colleague James Male, she coordinates a summer research program aimed at encouraging undergraduates from diverse backgrounds to consider advanced degees. For the past three years, the program has brought seven or eight students from across the country to UMass to delve into issues such as water supply and groundwater contamination. Long stresses the importance of going beyond a B.S.; advanced degrees not only open the doors to academia, she says, but make it more likely that students who take them into industry will wind up in leadership positions. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates gives priority to civil and environmental engineering students who are women and members of traditionally underrepresented groups. Long, who is Chinese American, says that role models have been a crucial factor in her success. "It's really important for students to see that a woman from a minority group can earn advanced degrees, can be a scientist, and can do interesting research."
Among Long's courses are Introduction to Environmental Engineering Principles and Hazardous Waste Management, taken primarily by juniors and seniors, and graduate-level courses on bioremediation and environmental microbiology. She dresses up when she teaches, out of respect, she says, for her role and her students; and she engages students with lively visual presentations: using a ball and a Velcro ping-pong paddle, for instance, to symbolize chemical absorption onto soil particles.
"Some of the material is difficult, and I try to keep students from getting discouraged," she says. "I tell them, `This is where we're going to use the knowledge, and this is why it's important.' I tell them I'm not trying to torture them."
She pauses and adds, "A lot of students come in with the idea that they're interested in air pollution or hazardous waste, but the very best students realize that it's not so much what you're working on, but how you're working on it, and what you're learning."
PORTING A BLUE LAB COAT , Long moves through a lab in the basement of Marcus Hall. Work is progressing on several projects. Mason jars of soil samples are packed into refrigerators. Hulking biohoods remove microscopic particles from the air, enabling the researchers to conduct experiments without fear of various samples being contaminated. Specialized instruments determine the chemical composition of water samples and chart it in jagged black lines.
Long pauses before a machine that is slowly charting the chemical composition of a water sample pulled from the Wachusett Reservoir in Clinton. The reservoir, which is along the route that water travels from the Quabbin Reservoir to metropolitan Boston, is in a region that has undergone a significant amount of development, raising concerns about pollutants possibly seeping into the water. The state monitors the water five days a week; Long's role is tracking possible microbial contaminants to their sources all the way up the tributaries, if necessary. While the data on bacteria in the water are easy to pinpoint, it's not always so easy to determine exactly what conclusions should be drawn from the numbers, Long says. "Do coliform counts and fecal coliform counts give us enough information to assure us we're providing pathogen-free water? That's what I'm working on finding out."
But the path to the answers is a lengthy one, she says, and fraught with numerous, time-consuming tasks in the lab. And while the many small steps that scientific research requires can be frustrating at times, Long says she remedies that by keeping her eye on the goal.
"You have to be a big-picture person to be a scientist," Long says. "It's really important to keep in mind that what we're doing matters; we're helping keep the environment clean for people."