Westminster Professor Receives STEM Award

Westminster professors in Great Salt Lake water

January 11, 2017

Westminster College is pleased to announce Dr. Frank Black, associate professor of chemistry, has been awarded a $20,000 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) grant by iUtah to conduct research on how wildfires and dust influence water quality.

iUtah is a National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) project aimed at building water sustainability in the state. It has provided more than $300,000 in funding to primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) like Westminster College over the past five years. The organization brings together a network of researchers, universities, governmental agencies, industry partners and nonprofit organizations statewide to help with their sustainability research.

The 2017 grant will help Black expand his earlier work on the Great Salt Lake to examine wildfire ash and GSL dust as sources of heavy metals to Utah's aquatic ecosystems. Greg Carling from Brigham Young University will also collaborate on the project.

As part of the grant, Westminster undergraduate researchers will collect atmospheric particles and conduct studies to assess the impact of wildfires and the exposure of newly dried GSL sediment on the mobilization of heavy metals and the role of these in the atmospheric deposition of metals to downwind aquatic ecosystems.

"This research is important because climate models largely predict that climate change in Utah will result in an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires," said Black. "Ash from these fires may represent an increasingly important, but poorly understood, source of heavy metals to Utah’s lakes, rivers and streams."

According to Black, Utah is currently in a five-year drought that has resulted in a seven-foot decrease in the elevation of Great Salt Lake and a 30 percent decrease in the lake’s volume. This has resulted in the exposure of a large surface area of dry lakebed that is favorable for dust generation, and the lakebed is elevated in a number of toxic trace elements. As a result, the generation of dust from recently exposed Great Salt Lake bed could result in substantial atmospheric deposition of heavy metals to downwind aquatic ecosystems that are important sources of human drinking water and wildlife habitat.

This year, researchers at Westminster College, Utah Valley University and Weber State University will together receive over $50,000 (up to $20,000 per project) in funding as part of the 2017 iUTAH Research Catalyst Grant (RCG) initiative. Westminster’s award will focus on undergraduate research.

For more information on iUtah, visit http://iutahepscor.org.