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Available REU Projects


Faculty Mentors: Ken Voglesonger and Eduardo Cejudo

The Yucatan Peninsula has some unique geological features called sinkholes (locally called cenotes), which are natural windows where groundwater communicates with the surface of the earth. This connection between the surface and the groundwater allows for activities on the surface (e.g. wastewater treatment and discharge, surface runoff) to directly impact the aquifer below. These cenotes are not well understood and we would like to know how the water chemistry changes with depth into the cenotes.

This project aims to examine the concentrations of nutrients and other chemical parameters in these systems: nitrogen (NO2-, NO3-, NH4+), phosphorous (PO4-3), dissolved oxygen (O2, aq). Examining the behavior of these important nutrients will allow us to assess potential nutrient pollution due to human activities, and to understand the biogeochemistry of this important resource. Students will learn to create a sampling plan, collect and preserve water samples from cenotes and analyse the water samples at the lab in Mexico, and bring other samples back to Illinois to complete their analyses. With the results obtained, we will try to recreate the story of the most probable chemical processes in the cenotes, how the nutrients are introduced and behave in the aquifer, and what our results mean for these aquifers in the Yucatán.

Candidates are suggested to have general chemistry and biology knowledge and an interest in hydrogeology and water chemistry.

Faculty Mentors: Phil Carpenter, Luis Marin and Jorge Perera

This project will use geophysics to better understand the karst geology below the northeastern Yucatán Peninsula. Geophysical surveys will focus on delineation of karst conduits that control the movement of groundwater and downward percolation of contaminants and mapping the depth of the freshwater/saltwater interface. Prior to traveling to Mexico students will get hands-on experience with several geophysical methods and gain familiarity with interpretation software. While in Mexico students will become familiar with survey layout, recording data (both manually and using data-loggers), maintaining and repairing instruments, and processing/interpretation of geophysical data. Geophysical methods may include resistivity, spontaneous potential, and time-domain electromagnetics.

After returning to NIU students will complete data processing and interpretation, culminating in the development of a poster for a professional meeting. Geophysical anomalies will be analyzed and compared with positions of surface openings to identify recharge features that should be protected. Geophysical data will be inverted to determine the depth to the saline water and variations in this depth across the field area. The collected information will be also be used to construct a dynamical conceptual model of groundwater flow within the karstic aquifer. This will be done with the use of specialized software in groundwater analysis as Modflow and Gflow. The integration of the experimental and simulation information will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the physical behavior of fluids and contaminant transport in the subsurface of the northeastern Yucatán Peninsula.

One year of physics is recommended and prior knowledge of the mathematics of groundwater flow is desirable.

Faculty Mentors: Melissa Lenczewski and Rosa Maria Leal-Bautista

As human activity from tourism or urban expansion increases, so does the potential for contamination of groundwater. Groundwater in the Yucatan is more susceptible to pollution because of the karst geology, which allows for pollution dumped on the surface to rapidly transport into the groundwater with little attenuation. 

This research project will examine groundwater for organic pollution that is associated with tourism and urban expansion. The outcome of this research will be the ability to pinpoint the source of the pollution so that it can be prevented in the future. Pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCP) such as caffeine, antibiotics, female hormones, DEET, and sunscreen all enter the groundwater either through swimming in the water or by wastewater disposal. These compounds have been shown to have a detrimental impact on human or ecosystem health.  Pesticides, especially 2,4-D, are used near the edges of cenotes or in urban areas to control weeds. 2,4-D is a known carcinogen and recalcitrant in the environment. Gasoline (benzene, toluene, ethylene benzene, and xylenes) are ubiquitous in urban areas and enter waterways through leaking storage tanks, cars, and other engines.

The student involved in this project will learn how to detect these compounds in water through use of gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC). Water samples will be collected throughout all the field sites to determine the source of pollution in the water.

One year of chemistry is recommended, with additional courses in organic chemistry or analytical chemistry preferred.

Faculty Mentors: Thomas J. Pingel and Gilberto Acosta

Humankind exerts a great pressure upon the natural resources. In the case of water, it has promoted changes in land use of the natural environment and differential availability of the resource among landscapes. Urbanization has led to deforestation, erosion, loss of biodiversity and environmental services, and degradation and depletion of water resources. This problem is extremely important in the Yucatan Peninsula, since the only source of drinking water is groundwater, which in turn receives wastewater discharges generated on the surface. For this reason, groundwater is highly vulnerable. But how can we relate the changes in the quality of drinking water and the use of the land?

The objective of this study is to explore the relationship between land-use changes and groundwater quality. The student working on this project will learn basic methods of Remote Perception and Geographic Information Systems. With these tools, it will be possible to identify types of land use based on available information on groundwater quality. Once we have the results, we will use them to try to relate land uses to groundwater quality and infer what types of land use may have more influence on groundwater changes.

Basic knowledge of and interest in Remote Sensing and GIS concepts are recommended.

Faculty Mentors: Tomoyuki Shibata and Cecilia Hernández Zepeda

Visiting beautiful cenotes is one of the most popular activities among tourists in the Yucatan Peninsula. While concern has been raised in recent years regarding cenote water quality as a result of detections of fecal indicator bacteria (e.g. Escherichia coli), to date there has been limited scientific documentation of pathogens in cenotes that potentially affect human health.

This project will investigate the occurrence and concentration of selected enteric viruses and their potential health risks in the Riviera Maya. Students will learn field techniques (e.g. sample collection, record keeping), lab procedures (e.g. basic culture and molecular methods), and quantitative microbial risk assessment. The results from this research will contribute to filling knowledge gaps and assisting decision-makers in improving existing policies or developing new ones to protect cenote water quality and human health. This project integrates critical thinking, communication, and creativity.

Knowledge of or interest in microbiology, virology concepts, environmental engineering, or environmental health is a plus. Basic laboratory training is recommended.


Faculty Mentors: Tomoyuki Shibata and Diego Casas Beltrán

A karst aquifer system is the only source of freshwater in the Yucatan Peninsula. The aquifer has served as the primarily source of drinking water for local people since the Maya civilization.  However, the karst aquifer system is vulnerable to anthropogenic pollution (e.g. toxic chemicals and pathogens) associated with intensive tourism industry, rapid population growth, and poor planning. There has been limited documentation of the environmental and social factors associated with water-related health among local people and tourists.

This project will investigate water contaminations and exposure routes, behaviors, and socioeconomic and geographic factors that potentially increase the risk of waterborne illnesses.  Students will learn to design and administer surveys in English and Spanish and to analyze collected data. The results from this research will contribute to filling knowledge gaps and assisting decision-makers in improving existing policies or developing new ones to promote sustainable development. This project integrates critical thinking, communication, and creativity.

Knowledge of or interest in environmental studies, sustainability, public health, statistics, or epidemiology is a plus. Basic laboratory training is recommended.