Spring 2024 Issue:

Alumni Stories

Researching Contaminants in Water

Researching Contaminants in Water

Researching Contaminants in Water

Doctoral candidate Katie Mayer ’20 collects freshwater bivalves for her research into the effects of contaminants on the organisms’ behavior.

By Caroline Junker, Spring 2024

When Katie Mayer ’20 sat down on her lunch break in the spring of 2021, she had no idea a research article that popped up in her feed would spark a redirection in her career path, leading her to a PhD program at Virginia Tech.

Mayer, an environmental science major, was about halfway through a two-year stint as an associate scientist at a contract research organization. At the time, she wasn’t sure how she would return to aquatic biology, a passion she discovered while at Moravian.

“I was always more of an earth science type gal,” Katie says. But a class in marine ecology ignited her interest in aquatic organisms. “I just remember seeing all the colors and the visuals of these animals under the water—it was a jaw-dropping moment!”

Filled with this new passion, Mayer jumped into undergraduate research, working with Associate Professor of Biology Joshua Lord to explore how environmental parameters impact Asian shore crabs. In Moravian’s summer SOAR (Student Oppor- tunities for Academic Research) program, Katie investigated how ocean acidification may affect the social hierarchies of juvenile American lobsters, a project she extended into her senior honors thesis.

Upon graduating, Mayer decided she wasn’t ready for graduate school, opting instead to get work experience. Just as she was contemplating a return to environmental science, a pivotal moment occurred. “I remember sitting at my desk and seeing an article about how antidepressants in water can alter crayfish behavior,” Mayer says.

On a whim, she emailed a corresponding author, who connected her with his colleague, Austin Gray, a professor at Virginia Tech. Gray offered to chat with Mayer, and their conversations, along with some support from mentors at Moravian, led to Mayer’s induction into the Gray lab in 2022.

Mayer is staying true to the roots of her interest in organismal behavior, centering her dissertation on how freshwater bivalves respond to environmental contaminants. She is focused on anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals, including household drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which commonly enter freshwater systems via wastewater.

In terms of what path she wants to take with her doctorate, Mayer says she intends to keep her options open. “I want to be a scientist from here on out,” she shares, continuing that she wants to “apply what I know and be able to research how to support species that are facing consequences of environmental change.”

Mayer is adamant that her enthusiasm for applying her research and connecting with the scientific community stems from her time at Moravian. “[Moravian] really helped foster my interests and love for thinking about science, but in contexts that are helpful for researching and working out in the field,” she explains.

“The interdisciplinary education that I got at Moravian gave me the confidence to put myself in a challenging position where I can learn about forming those relationships with other scientists, other students, and be able to discuss some of these problems that our world is facing.”

Mayer’s work will doubtless enrich our understanding of how increasing amounts of contaminants in our water systems impact organisms, a crucial component of protecting ecosystems in a changing world.

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