CRF Provides Instrumentation and Guidance for Young Researcher

Zhang collecting samples Image by Courtesy
Yuxuan Zhang records information while collecting lichen samples in Boston.

By Brooke Coupal

Yuxuan Zhang cherishes her walks along the Lower Neponset River in Boston.

“I love the Lower Neponset River because it is a great natural escape from city life,” says Zhang, a sophomore at the Boston Latin School. “It is a place where I can unwind and clear my mind.”

So when Zhang learned that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had named the river a Superfund site in March 2022 after discovering sediments contaminated with elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), she was shocked.  PCBs, which were banned in the U.S. in 1979, are man-made organic chemicals that are harmful to human health and the environment.

Zhang decided to conduct her own research on the river’s contamination, but she needed assistance. She reached out to dozens of labs for help, and UMass Lowell’s Core Research Facilities (CRF) stepped up.

Zhang in CRF lab Image by Courtesy
Zhang tests her lichen samples in the CRF’s Materials & Chemical Characterization Lab.

“We’re always so happy and fulfilled when we can help young, aspirational students with their research,” CRF Executive Director Karen Hamlin says.

Since the eighth grade, Zhang, who’s passionate about environmental science, has researched lichens, which are organisms composed of fungus and algae or cyanobacteria that have a crusty grayish-green appearance.

“Not a lot of people know about lichens, but they’re everywhere; on trees, fences, rocks, concrete, soil,” she says. “I’m really interested in this organism and how it helps the science community.”

Lichens get their nutrients from their surrounding environment and can be good indicators of environmental contamination, as the organisms have no mechanism to filter or remove pollutants. With this in mind, Zhang collected samples of lichens from trees near the Lower Neponset River to search for previously overlooked heavy metal contaminants.

Lacking the instruments needed to test the lichens, Zhang emailed more than 100 companies and universities across the country to see if they would help.

Zhang lichen Image by Courtesy
Lichen grows on a tree trunk, pictured on the right.

“I realized how important it is to have connections in the science field, because science isn’t just about one person doing the work,” she says. “It’s about an entire community working together.”

She had little success until her inquiry reached the inbox of Wendy Gavin ’23, a senior lab manager at UMass Lowell’s CRF.

“I get emails every day from people looking for me to help them with their research, and this one stood out,” Gavin says. “I was totally impressed right off the bat.”

To the relief of Zhang, the CRF was on board.

“It was like finding water in the desert,” she says. “I cannot thank them enough.”

Scott Balicki, a Boston Latin School science teacher who has advised Zhang on her science projects for the past three years, delivered Zhang’s lichen samples to UMass Lowell for testing in the CRF’s Materials & Chemical Characterization Lab. There, CRF technologists used an instrument known as an inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectroscope to look for the presence of heavy metals in the lichens. The findings revealed elevated levels of lead and selenium.

Zhang in CRF lab 2 Image by Courtesy
Zhang analyzes data in the CRF lab.

“I have had the pleasure of working with many gifted student scientists over the 22 years that I have taught at Boston Latin School, and Yuxuan stands as one of the strongest that I have worked with,” Balicki says. “She made the connection (to UMass Lowell) herself, and they generously responded and helped her with her project by running the samples.”

Gavin invited Zhang to spend a day at the lab, which Zhang gladly accepted. She got a tour and learned how to use the different instruments to test her samples.

“I had never been to a lab at a university before, and being able to see instruments in action was a great experience,” says Zhang, who is now considering UMass Lowell for college.

Zhang science fair presentation Image by Courtesy
Zhang presents her research at the Boston/Region VI STEM Fair.
Zhang entered her research into the Boston/Region VI STEM Fair. She placed second in the Senior Division and received awards from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force. Zhang is continuing to work with the CRF as she prepares for the Massachusetts High School Science & Engineering Fair on April 5.

“Yuxuan is a great example of the kind of creativity and innovation that we want to help support and foster,” Hamlin says.

Kathleen Bateman, the science program director at Boston Latin School, sees how beneficial the partnership with UMass Lowell was for Zhang.

“Boston Latin School has many students looking for support from local universities and institutions. Oftentimes, schools are willing to enroll our students into their programs but will not support a student’s independent research,” she says. “Thankfully, UMass Lowell welcomed Yuxuan and supported her area of interest. This partnership was invaluable to Yuxuan, and we are hopeful to continue the collaboration.”