SPH Seniors Test the Waters of Environmental Health Field Research

Four young people, two men and two women, stand together holding instruments to collect and record water quality measurements. One of the women is holding a gray electronic device connected to wires with probes placed in a water bottle held by a man wearing blue gloves. The second woman looks on, holding a clipboard and pen. The second man, wearing a plaid shirt instructs the group.
School of Public Health seniors Ahmad Reid, Paeton Barnes and Shreya Bohara Chand take readings on a water sample collected from a water fountain at the Empire State Plaza Concourse as part of a field research experience. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 14, 2024) — University at Albany seniors in the School of Public Health (SPH) recently visited the New York State Capitol to try their hand at field research and discover what it would be like to work as a scientist at the New York State Department of Heath’s (NYS DOH) Center for Environmental Health and at the Wadsworth Center laboratories. 

The experience was arranged by SPH’s Ursula Lauper, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and Section Chief of Water Systems Control and Analysis at the NYS DOH Bureau of Water Supply Protection, who is working to create new pathways for SPH students to gain hands-on research experience as undergraduates. 

“Many diverse research experiences exist for SPH students, thanks in no small part to UAlbany’s strong and longstanding partnership with the Center for Environmental Health and the Wadsworth Center,” said Lauper on the day of the Capitol field trip. “Right now, I am interested in creating new, small-scale experiences to help give students a taste of research, including field sampling and lab life, so they can start to get a sense of whether applied research is a career path that they’d like to pursue. 

“Day-long experiences like what we are doing today can help students learn about what it’s like to do the sort of ‘boots on the ground’ work that scientists do every day, which you don’t necessarily get from standard classwork.”

'Older water means juicier bugs'

The day of the field experience began early, with students meeting up with Lauper’s lab members at the Capitol Concourse beneath the Empire State Plaza in Downtown Albany. With water collection supplies and testing instruments at the ready, the team’s task was to collect water samples from concourse facilities including a water fountain and a restroom sink, mimicking the standard procedures for investigating a legionella outbreak. With Legionnaires’ disease on the rise globally, these procedures serve as a realistic case study of the kind of work environmental scientists do to protect public health.

With help from Lauper’s lab members, the students measured the samples’ temperature, conductivity and pH— all factors that influence survival of the harmful waterborne bacteria.  

A person wearing a camo print long sleeved shirt and black latex gloves holds a clear plastic water bottle under a silver faucet to collect a water sample. The sink is white porcelain.
Grace Willard collects a water sample from a restroom sink. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

Next, the group descended several levels beneath the concourse to reach the labyrinthine halls of the Wadsworth laboratories. Here, Lauper’s team introduced the students to additional methods of water sample testing including using a colorimeter to measure chlorine, a luminometer to detect ATP (an indicator of biological activity), and the ‘Cube’ – an all-inclusive compact testing unit that pairs with a laptop program to detect legionella in under an hour. 

In the afternoon, the students toured nearby Biggs Laboratory, part of the Wadsworth Center, and were guided through a series of methods to test water samples for legionella using techniques such as spread plating, adding reagents to mock samples and interpreting data from a specialized mass spectrometry instrument. 

Reflecting on research 

“Public Health and a lot of the research that goes into it feels very here and now; I like learning about real world problems and then exploring realistic solutions,” said UAlbany senior Paeton Barnes, who participated in the field trip and will graduate in May with a major in public health and minors in Spanish and Globalization. 

“Because of my interest in public health, I was excited for the opportunity to see what it’s actually like to conduct environmental health research. Seeing how things work on the ground is so different from the theory you learn in class. It was really cool seeing all that goes into the lab work and then being able to try it out myself. It was a great experience being able to follow the entire process of water testing.”

Five young people, four women and one man, stand together holding instruments to collect and record water chemistry measurements. A woman in the center is holding a gray electronic device connected to wires with probes placed in a water bottle held by a woman wearing a blue sweater and black gloves. A woman wearing a camo print shirt holds a clipboard and looks on. A woman in a brown sweater and a man in a yellow plaid shirt also look on.
Grace Willard, Paeton Barnes and Shreya Bohara Chand measure and record temperature and conductivity readings on a water sample. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

SPH student Shreya Bohara Chand will graduate in May with a major in public health and a minor in social welfare.

“I was interested in this opportunity because I had little idea as to what working in environmental health entailed,” said Bohara Chand. “Professor Lauper had given us insights into her work during our class discussions and that always sparked my interest. We don’t usually get to see how the theories we learn in class get used while working on the field so this was a great opportunity. It was such a great learning experience, I never considered environmental health before this as a potential field to explore but, this has made me feel otherwise. 

“My favorite part of the day was collecting samples. It felt like getting our hands dirty and getting some work done. Taking these samples to the Biggs labs and performing different tests was also fun.”

A young woman with long dark hair wearing glasses, a brown sweater, blue latex gloves and white winter coat tied around her waist fills a plastic water collection bottle at a silver water fountain.
Shreya Bohara Chand collects a water sample from a drinking fountain at the Empire State Plaza Concourse. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

Career pathways in public health

UAlbany alum Grace Willard ’23 joined Lauper’s students during the field experience. Willard discovered her interest in public health while studying nursing at another institution and transferred to UAlbany as a senior to major in public health. After graduating in December, Willard undertook a position working as an Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) Fellow in the lab of Theresa Hattenrath at Wadsworth's Biggs Lab in February 2024.

“After transferring to UAlbany, I had to take additional biology classes and learned a lot about the field through my professors who shared their experiences and backgrounds,” said Willard. “These experiences in the biology department, and in public health, piqued my interest in science research. 

“I learned about the APHL fellowship program through the School of Public Health. It seemed like a good opportunity to gain research experience and build my resume, while at the same time helping me figure out whether this is something that I’d like to go back to school for or continue with as a career. It was also reassuring to know many of the faculty in the SPH have connections with the NYS Department of Health and the Wadsworth Center.”

A young man wearing a black hoodie and blue latex gloves stands at a lab bench covered in various instruments used to detect legionella presence. The lab bench is black and the walls in the background are white. A young woman in a camo print shirt looks on.
SPH senior Ahmad Reid uses a luminometer to detect ATP – which is used as a proxy for biological activity – in a water sample collected at Empire State Plaza.

UAlbany alum Irene Kyei ’23 transferred into UAlbany’s School of Public Health during the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by a keen interest in the processes that inform public health decision making. 

“Inspired by public health efforts that I witnessed during my own recovery from COVID-19, I decided to volunteer as a member of the COVID-19 Student Support Team at UAlbany,” said Kyei. “I wanted to use this opportunity to gain experience in public health, to build on the skillset for my career as a public health professional. It really paid off because I got hired as a Student Assistant at the New York State Department of Health at the Wadsworth Lab’s newborn screening program. Although my job responsibilities did not involve research, I loved problem solving and the power of data.”

Kyei’s experience at the newborn screening program confirmed her desire to work in research. In March 2024, she undertook a new position as a Public Health Specialist at the NYS DOH Bureau of Water Supply Protection, working with Professor Lauper. 

“I’ve been working here for only two weeks and so far, I am loving it. My supervisors have been teaching me a lot and getting me prepared for the busy months to come. I wake up every day appreciating my journey so far and for having a fulfilling career. I am so excited about the future and the endless opportunities that await me.”

Nine smiling people, five women and four men, stand together for a group portrait under a sign that reads “The Concourse” at Empire State Plaze. Several are wearing latex gloves used to safely collect water samples. – I
Professor Ursula Lauper (center) plans to expand opportunities for students at the School of Public Health to get “tastes” of field research with experiential learning days at the Wadsworth Center. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)