International School of Monterey Wins 2014 Water Award!

Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How stand before their winning project.  (Photo: C. Reeb)
Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How stand before their winning project. Photo: C. Reeb.

   Over the last 4 years that  the Water For Our Future Award has been presented at the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair, I have been impressed with the quality and complexity of our winning projects. From the effects of saltwater intrusion on plant growth to the documentation and measurement of contaminants in rivers and storm drains, these students have brought awareness to problems facing water supplies and aquatic environments in our community.  This year, our winners took a step further.  They designed a solution.

CSUMB’s Watershed Institute and Hopkins Marine Station congratulate Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How from the International School of Monterey for their project titled:

Nitrosomonas europaea:  Accelerating Bioremediation of Ammonia Using Magnesium Sulfate

Nitrosomonas europaea is a common bacterium found worldwide.  This beneficial microbe plays an important role in the global nitrogen cycle.  It is needed for the first step of a pathway that converts toxic ammonia into a form of nitrogen that can be used by plants.   Nitrosomonas has been used in biological filters, like those found in fish aquariums, to maintain water quality.  It has also become very important in wastewater recycling facilities, such as the one in Marina, CA, where wastewater is turned it into “Safe Water” for irrigation (this is the water flowing through purple pipes in farm fields).   As these students write, Nitrosomonas europaea can be used for the “bioremediation” of water sources contaminated with nitrogen-containing compounds like ammonia.  One such water source is the Salinas River and its aquifer.  They cite a UC Davis study suggesting that 90% of the ammonia in this river can be traced to fertilizers.

What Christopher and Rohan did was to show how addition of magnesium sulfate (also found in Epson Salts) enabled Nitrosomonas to increase the rate of ammonia oxidation.  Next, they cleverly designed a filtration system containing this microbe (see photo at right) that successfully removed ammonia from contaminated water.  They then suggested that a scaled-up version of this filter might one day clean up excess ammonia in the Salinas River.  Science fair judges love it when students consider the bigger picture.  As a result, this junior-level project also won first prize in Microbiology.

Microbial filter designed by Bhushun and How.  Photo: C. Reeb.

Microbial filter designed by Bhushun and How. Photo: C. Reeb.

Solutions to some of humankind’s biggest dilemmas can begin early in the minds of young people. With most of California affected by drought, this year’s fair brought a number of water-related projects to the judges for consideration, each offering solutions for the future.

Here are a few examples:

  • Comparisons between solar and thermal desalination methods
  • Tests of water-saving shower heads
  • Experiments with irrigation schedules that maximize plant growth and minimize water need
  • Varying the amounts of fertilizer to maintain plant growth, but with less water.  

Certainly, water solutions are on the minds of young people in Monterey County.  So, if you ever wonder how scientists come up with eloquent solutions to modern problems, think about visiting the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair next year and see where it all begins.  You will walk away knowing our future is in good hands.

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