Weird Water Science: The Beginnings of an Exciting Career

I was thinking about how much I enjoy working in water science and with the next generation of water scientists at MSU. But when people ask me what I do, I always remember one of my first headlines in the general press on my research, “Her Career is Flushed Down the Toilet,” published in News of the Weird. Wow, even my mom read it.

I was an assistant professor and had gotten a grant for $4,000. That isn’t much but we decided to take advantage of the free use of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in the Florida Keys. 

My colleague, microbial ecologist John Paul, and I were combining our labs and working together. We had lots of enthusiastic students between the two of us. We decided to investigate the pollution and dying of the coral reefs associated with the septic tanks from all the houses that lined the human made canals where tourists and vacationers kept their boats, which lead out to the reef. 

So we grew up a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) and got permission to use it as a tracer. We were very excited planning our experiment. We decided to just flush it down the toilet at the facility where we were staying, and then we monitored the adjacent canal.

Now how many times do we flush? What concentration of the phage should we add? How often should we take a sample of the canal?  How many locations along the canal should be sampled? 

The sign in the bathroom read “DO NOT USE, EXPERIMENT IN PROGRESS.”  We flushed three times. We sampled every few hours through the night up and down the canal. We did not sleep and were so anxious about the results (which take 24 hours).

As the plaques (virus growth) began to appear, we realized that what we flushed down the toilet ends up in the canal in two hours! That was the start of many, many research projects in the Keys on septic tanks and is what formed the basis of my career in field work in health-related water microbiology.   

I recently returned from a sampling trip at Higgins Lake, Mich., with some students. It is a beautiful site. It was great to be on the water, sampling the lake shoreline, the ditches draining into the lake and springs that seep water in from the sandy lake bottom. Most of the houses surrounding the lake have septic tanks. I thought about that tracer study. Maybe it’s time for another flushing experiment. 

Safe water helps ensure healthier and more productive lives for future generations. I am really proud to be part of the energetic and dedicated faculty and students that work in water science here at MSU. What could be better than carrying on a tradition of weird water science? Not much, I’ve decided. 

-Joan Rose