Penn State partners with Monash University for Australia water quality research

Students gathered around a water sampling device that is on the ground outside

Penn State students and Monash collaborators used a water sampling device to investigate emerging contaminants within the Gippsland Lakes watershed.

Credit: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A group of Penn State students recently traveled to Australia as part of a partnership between Penn State and Monash University to conduct research aimed at better understanding sources of decreased water quality in watersheds, in addition to finding possible solutions.

The National Science Foundation-supported International Research Experience for Students took place during July and early August. During the trip, students from the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and other colleges performed state-of-the-art field and laboratory research focused on the Gippsland Lakes watershed.

“This program gave me memories that I will never forget, academic knowledge that I will apply in my future, and the opportunity to learn about a culture with which I was previously unfamiliar,” said Christina Cheng, a third-year biological engineering student. “We met incredible people at Monash who guided and supported us throughout our research experience.”

Lauren McPhillips, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering and civil and environmental engineering, mentored the students. In addition to teaching them about general hydrology, watershed management practices and water quality field and lab methods, she partnered with the College of Engineering Center for Global Engineering to facilitate their training on topics relating to Australian culture.

Other College of Agricultural Sciences faculty involved in the effort included Jonathan Duncan, associate professor of hydrology, and Heather Preisendanz, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. Nathaniel Warner, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Alandra Kahl, teaching professor of engineering at Penn State Greater Allegheny, also participated.

“Although it was an intensive experience and we did a lot of work in a short period of time, the students had a lot of fun, and it was a really rewarding experience for them,” McPhillips said. “It was incredibly valuable for them to go through the process of planning the study, collecting the data, learning how to analyze it and finally presenting it to their colleagues.”

Due to its status as both an agricultural region and a popular recreational destination, the Gippsland Lakes watershed is a high priority for the Australian Research Council. Penn State’s involvement is an extension of ongoing research by Monash University, and because of this, each student was co-mentored by faculty at both Penn State and Monash. Primary Monash mentors for this year's research were Perran Cook and Wei Wen Wong in the School of Chemistry.

“It was really enlightening to see that Australia is dealing with the same water quality management issues as we are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” McPhillips said. “In both places, there is the dilemma of how to support agricultural efforts to help ensure that the nation has a large enough food supply while also minimizing negative environmental impacts on the health of the watershed.”

Among the topics the students studied were soil quality, the presence of emerging contaminants such as personal care products and pharmaceuticals, and the natural ability of the watershed to perform beneficial nutrient-removing processes.

By understanding factors such as soil and water chemistry and types of irrigation used in agriculture, the team contributed to data that helps explain the state of water quality downstream. When certain factors are not regulated upstream, this often can result in detrimental effects like algal blooms and nutrient pollution downstream, McPhillips explained.

“The experience of working on water quality research in Australia sparked my curiosity to delve deeper into livestock and manure management styles we see here in Pennsylvania,” said Landis Crawford, a third-year student studying biological engineering. “This trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with nutrient cycling in a completely new spatial region — the climate was different, the soils were different and the land management was different from anything I had ever experienced before.”

Beyond their laboratory and field work, the group visited sites where innovative techniques are used to help improve water quality, including one facility that is implementing more efficient irrigation techniques to decrease runoff. In Melbourne, the students learned about a drought that led to changes in many management practices, with the addition of rainwater harvesting to many buildings and the replacement of older toilets with models that use less water.

“The culture in Australia is conscious of sustainability,” McPhillips said. “All of the food in Australia is labeled to tell consumers what percentage of the ingredients were grown in Australia. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the nation is an island, so it can be a lot harder to get food from elsewhere.”

In addition to research-related aspects of the trip, the students also experienced Australian culture, which included attending an Australian rules football game and exploring a local botanical garden.

“It was a really unique and fun opportunity to get to know all the students on the trip and their interests in their research,” McPhillips said. “It was an incredible experience to work with and see such bright students in action.”

Penn State’s involvement in the research at Monash University will continue in summer 2024 with the next group of students, who will be selected during the winter months.