Studying the Spread of COVID-19 Through Wastewater
Lauren Kelly '23
Civil and Environmental Engineering
Commonwealth Honors College
What drew you to this field of study?
As a freshman, I enrolled in Civil and Environmental Engineering because of my interest in understanding ways to improve infrastructure. However, I was also interested in biology and thought about changing my major. I spoke to Professor Nick Tooker during office hours and voiced my concerns. He introduced me to Professor Caitlyn Butler, an established environmental engineering professor whose projects often contain elements of microbiology. I was able to meet her that afternoon and by the end of the meeting, I was offered a position in her research lab. There, I worked with several graduate students in the research group on their respective projects, as well as the current project I have been working on for the past three years on wastewater-based epidemiology.
How do you conduct your research?
I work on the university’s “COVID in Wastewater” project, tracking the spread of COVID-19 on the UMass campus using a method known as wastewater-based epidemiology. In my early involvement in the project, I contributed remotely, due to the COVID pandemic, by conducting weekly literature reviews on papers relevant to the topic. The articles I found helped the in-person researchers refine their experimentation methods. After a year of working remotely, I was finally able to return to the lab in summer 2021 to assist with in-person lab work. In our research, we collect wastewater samples from different sewer catchment areas across campus multiple times a week. We bring the samples back to the lab, where we extract any residual RNA and analyze it for concentrations of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 infection. This data allows us to track the changes of viral concentrations and determine where COVID-19 is spreading.
What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?
This project is part of the university’s COVID-19 response protocol, helping to keep the campus community informed and safe. During the more difficult times of the pandemic, the results of this research were used to inform the campus’s response to the pandemic. Although this research project is most directly beneficial to our UMass Amherst community, it also contributes to global research on the topic and can be applied in other public health contexts.
The best thing about research for me is being able to apply the knowledge I gain in my courses in a real-world context.
How does your faculty mentor support your research?
Professor Butler has been incredibly supportive of me and the rest of my research group working on the COVID project, and she has done all she can to ensure we have the resources we need. From meeting with students individually to track our progress to writing recommendation letters for scholarships to bringing bagels to our weekly group meetings, Professor Butler has gone above and beyond to help me feel supported as an undergraduate student. She has also been extremely helpful and supportive as I design my own honor’s thesis research project, which is also related to wastewater-based epidemiology.
What do you find most exciting about conducting research?
The best thing about research for me is being able to apply the knowledge I gain in my courses in a real-world context. We learn about a lot of complicated concepts and processes in civil engineering courses, and much of it is implemented in actual buildings or treatment systems. Research provides hands-on learning and offers control over projects.
What are you most proud of?
I am incredibly proud of being a published author, a rare achievement for an undergraduate student. Last year I worked with Patrick Acer, a graduate student who completed his master’s degree this past spring, on his thesis project related to COVID-19 wastewater-based epidemiology on the UMass campus. As a result of helping with his data collection and editing of his manuscript, I have been listed as an author on the paper he published, “Quantifying the Relationship between SARS-CoV-2 Wastewater Concentrations and Building-Level COVID-19 Prevalence at an Isolation Residence: A Passive Sampling Approach,” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH). I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I was given to work with him, and I aspire to publish my own paper someday.
How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?
Being involved in research has helped to solidify my career choice and gain knowledge about topics not usually covered in detail in the classroom. At the beginning of my college career, I was unsure about sticking with civil engineering, but the opportunity to work in Professor Butler’s research lab revealed my passion for learning and conducting lab work and my interest in environmental engineering.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering, which I believe is a perfect way to pursue specification in my field as a water resources engineer.
Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?
I think UMass is a great university for students who are looking to learn beyond the classroom. Research was the niche I found to pursue my passion, but there are plenty of other opportunities for students to get involved and apply what they’ve learned. Also, in my experience, the professors here want nothing more than to support their students and help them succeed in whatever undertaking they choose to pursue.