A Day at the Elizabeth River

By Jordan M. Herrington, Summer Research Intern in Dr. Nishad Jayasundara’s Lab

This summer I had the pleasure of working in the Jayasundara Lab under mentorship of the lab manager Melissa Chernick. I learned many valuable skills throughout my experience like fish husbandry, reading and writing research papers, and a plethora of lab skills and procedures. 

My highlight from this internship was the field work . The Jayasundara Lab studies environmental toxicology using zebrafish and killifish as model organisms. The zebrafish are bred in the lab while the killifish need to be collected from around the Elizabeth River, in Norfolk, Virginia. This summer I went on two trips to the Elizabeth River, the first to collect temperature data along with placing temperature sensors in each of the areas of study and the second was a trip to collect killifish for experiments back in the lab. Although I won’t have time to work with the fish this summer, it was a great experience learning how to collect fish in the wild to use in a laboratory setting.

Jordan working at the Republic Creosote site along the Elizabeth River

Let me walk you through a typical day of field work. Our days started early. At 3:30 in the morning, we prepped all our equipment for our long haul to Norfolk. Some items we packed were fish traps, hotdogs for bait, coolers, temperature sensors, and we couldn’t forget the waders. We visited a few different sites throughout the day and at the first site I managed to sink knee deep into the mud. [Thank you, waders, for saving my clothes from being wet all day!] After that first misstep I got the hang of it and only sunk a few more times… It was great being able to visit three sites in 1 day! As the day went on it got hotter and hotter, and the waders were no help combatting the heat. Finally, we made our way to McLean Contracting Co. the company that has bought the Superfund site know as Republic Creosote, where we were collecting soil samples. Republic Creosoting Company was 1 of 3 major creosoting businesses on the Elizabeth River in the 1900s.

Jordan at the Republic Creosote site

Creosote is a wood preservative derived from the distillation of tar from wood or coal and is used as a pesticide to protect wood against termites, fungi, mites, and other pests. Creosote contains large amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which can cause cancer. PAHs can also come from burning coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, and tobacco or cooking.

During our trip we had many people in the community who came up to us and ask us what we were doing, genuinely interested in our research. It was great hearing from locals and their experience with creosote and PAHs and how they have affected their lives growing up in Norfolk.

PAHs effect all of us, not only people in Norfolk. This summer has broadened my view on the impact of PAHs in our daily lives and I have been honored to study the effects of these PAHs and use what I learn from my research to help and inform others, especially those in the Norfolk community.