Westminster Chemistry Professor Awarded $100k Grant to Solve Mercury Mystery in Great Salt Lake

Jul 27, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — A portion of Great Salt Lake has disappeared and a Westminster professor suspects it may hold the key to an even bigger lake mystery. Is the lake’s deep brine layer the source of its toxic methylmercury levels?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Westminster assistant chemistry professor Frank Black $100,000 to study toxic mercury levels in Great Salt Lake. The NSF awarded Black and University of Utah professor William Johnson the grant for their project “Role of the Deep Brine Layer in the Production of Methylmercury in Great Salt Lake.”

Professors Black and Johnson will try solving a mystery that’s perplexed scientists for years. Great Salt Lake is home to some of the highest concentrations of methylmercury (MeHg) ever reported for a natural body of water anywhere in the world. The lake’s deep brine layer is low in oxygen, and is also where the methylmercury levels are the highest. This deep brine layer has disappeared in the last couple years after culverts in the railroad causeway across the lake were closed. The deep brine layer is expected to reappear in the near future once a new bridge on the causeway is opened — presenting a unique research opportunity.

“The deep brine layer has long been believed to be responsible in some way for the very high concentrations of methylmercury in Great Salt Lake and the wildlife that lives there, but this has never been shown to be the case,” Black explains. “The recent disappearance and reestablishment of the deep brine layer in the lake have created the conditions for an unintentional regional — scale experiment that will allow us to determine what role the deep brine layer plays in mercury methylation and cycling in Great Salt Lake.” Swarms of flies and giant spiders hold the deep brine layer’s secrets and somebody has to catch them.

“It’s not too scary if you use the net and tubes,” Abby Scott explains as she captures another orb weaving spider.

Abby Scott, Maddy Trentman and Alex Martin are Westminster undergraduates working on the project. The NSF grant provides training for three Westminster students and two University of Utah graduate students — all are from groups underrepresented in STEM fields.

The project is an opportunity for Westminster undergraduates to be involved in research that could help state and federal regulators manage mercury levels in Great Salt Lake, its birds and other organisms. It’s also a chance for the students to not only stretch their legs but also their career imaginations.

“I liked the idea of getting outside and this was also a nice way to explore other options in science,” says Abby Scott, a neuroscience major in the Honors program. “I’ve been interested in pharmacology for a while but in starting to do this work there have been more and more research topics come up that have peaked my interest.”

“One of the most important things I’m learning this summer is what working in a lab entails. I think what many don’t realize is that you don’t just pop something in a machine to do all the work. We’ve learned a lot about analyzing the data when it comes out which has been great experience,” says Maddy Trentman, a junior studying biology and chemistry.

“As someone from out of state, I was surprised by the beauty of the Great Salt Lake. I had no idea about the mercury problem in it before this project. I’m excited to be on a research team trying to figure out this mystery,” says Alex Martin, a neuroscience major in the Honors program.

The team of students and professors will determine if the lake’s primary methylmercury source is (1) the deep brine layer, (2) sediment under the deep brine layer, (3) superficial sediment throughout the lake or (4) the large tracts of wetlands along the lake’s eastern shore.

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Arikka Von

About Westminster

Westminster is a private, independent, and comprehensive college in Salt Lake City, Utah. Students experience the liberal arts blended with professional programs in an atmosphere dedicated to civic engagement. With the goal of enabling its graduates to live vibrant, just, and successful lives, Westminster provides transformational learning experiences for both undergraduate and graduate students in a truly student-centered environment. Faculty focus on teaching, learning, and developing distinctive, innovative programs, while students thrive on Westminster’s urban Sugar House campus within minutes of the Rocky Mountains.

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