Environmental Engineers 'Tweet' about Water Issues to Reach Public After Gulf Oil Spill

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Graduate student Austa Parker tweeted this photo of herself from the Gulf.

In the virtual world of Twitter, Karl Linden is known simply as "WaterProf."

The CU professor of environmental engineering is a regular user of the social networking service, which he employs to help educate the general public about water quality issues and findings.

A recent entry: "Value water much? The US wastes 1.7 trillion gallons of water/yr due to water line breaks. Hows your infrastructure? http://sbne.ws/r/6Drb"

It's not idle chatter—using Twitter is actually helping to fulfill the "broader impacts" requirement of his National Science Foundation grant.

Linden and Assistant Professor Fernando Rosario-Ortiz were funded last summer by an NSF Rapid Response Grant to study the environmental fate of dispersants used in the Gulf oil spill cleanup.

Their team, which includes graduate students Austa Parker and Caitlin Glover, sends "tweets"—text messages with a maximum of 140 characters including hashtags (#) that allow users to follow certain subjects—to promote greater awareness of water quality chemistry, while also reaching underrepresented groups in science and engineering.

When a group of high school girls visited their laboratory for a demonstration, both Linden and Parker tweeted it out to their followers: "What do you get when you mix #oil and #dispersant? About 30 HS female students learning about CU Environmental Engineering in our lab today!"

"Using social media outlets like Twitter allows the public to be with us during every step of the research process, providing insight into what we as researchers and academics do," explains Parker. "Instead of only directing the public to read technical publications and presentations put out by researchers as a finished product, Twitter allows for a more relational way to present our research."

The students also used Twitter when they traveled to Louisiana in October to collect water samples from the oil-soaked shore.

Since then, the team has been working in the laboratory to develop analytical methods to detect the different chemical compounds contained in Corexit, the dispersant used by BP to break down oil spewing from the wellhead and keep it from reaching sensitive shore environments.

With analytical methods developed for three to four of the different chemicals, the researchers started looking at how the chemicals decay in ocean water, with and without the presence of ultraviolet light.

UV light is an important factor in the study because some of the dispersant was sprayed onto the surface of the ocean, while some of it was injected deep underwater at the source of the oil leak—a practice with unknown consequences.

The team also is studying the decay products that result from the breakdown of each chemical compound. "We want to get that out in the published literature, so that other researchers can be aware of them," Linden says. Colleagues in Linden's Center for Environmental Mass Spectrometry, Mike Thurman and Imma Ferrer, are assisting the group with the advanced chemical analyses.

As for the chemical Corexit, "We hope to make some recommendations on the best way to use it, so it doesn't persist in the environment," he says. You can bet the team will tweet about that when their work is complete.

CUE: Academic Program: 
Environmental Engineering Program

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