Graduate STEM Fellow Profile

Henry Stauffenberg IV

Project Title: Initiating New Science Partnerships in Rural Education (INSPIRE)
Thesis: Investigating Pyritization and Mercury Methylization in Weeks Bay, Alabama
College/University: Mississippi State University
Research Advisor: Karen McNeal
Degree Sought: M.S., Geology
Department: Geosciences
Research Focus: Sulfur and mercury cycle, sedimentary and geochemical coastal analysis, Weeks Bay geology
Teaching Partner(s): William Funderburk

Description of Research

Weeks Bay is a small, complex estuary that serves as a massive nutrient sink with diverse geochemical and microbial activity. Inorganic mercury, mainly from industrial activity, deposits into Weeks Bay atmospherically and through fluvial transport from the Fish and Magnolia rivers. The inorganic mercury reacts with sulfides in the sediment, produced from bacterial respiration, to precipitate cinnabar (HgS). The HgS is eventually methylated by sulfate reducing bacteria (SRB) to produce a highly toxic organic mercury compound known as methylmercury (MeHg). This MeHg readily binds to organic tissue and bioaccumluates through the food chain making seafood consumption a health risk by mercury poisoning in predatory fish such as tuna. The purpose of my research is to better understand the Sulfur and Hg cycle in order to investigate what promotes and inhibits MeHg production and bioaccumulation. I will be extracting acid volatile and total reduced sulfides from Weeks Bay sediment to quantify the degree of pyritization (within the first 10cm) and connect results to the MeHg concentrations provided by NOAA. I am investigating if there is a direct or indirect relationship between degree of pyritization (DOP) and MeHg production. I also intend to give a complete sedimentary and geochemical profile/analysis of Weeks Bay that will contribute to a weak, but growing, database.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience

My research involves a lot of excel work and statistical analysis in order to quantify and interpret my sulfide extracted samples. Also, my work dives heavily into colorimetric analysis using a spectrophotometer. Students in the physics classroom already learn about light waves/spectrum and color absorption. The spectrophotometer uses color absorption efficiency to quantify specific elements sorted by color, a direct link to physics in action. In every lab students have to create experiments and collect data using data studio and excel software. The excel habits, tricks, and advanced knowledge that I have gained interpreting my results can be passed on to the students to use to analyze and interpret theirs; for example, projectile motion labs and creation of a range table followed with a regressed equation from a scatter plot of data points. Various graphs and regressions are explored and compared. I am in the classroom to connect the basics of my research into every lesson plan. I promote the scientific process, hypothesis validation through testing, and the skills necessary to gather, process, and interpret data. My research does not have any single answer, and students who participate in my lesson plans will learn how to handle results with various outcomes and understand that research does not end, it only leads into further inquiry. I value hard work, quality, and inquiry. Just like my research, I encourage good questioning and critical thinking skills. I feel the search for understanding and the ability to ask the right questions are far more important to a scientist than having the right answers; in other words, I value wisdom over book smarts. These days it is all too common for students to go through labs, get an answer, and never ask why or critically think about what they have done. My research requires scientific skills (experience) that students need to acquire before entering college. Skills such as: creating testable hypotheses, proper data organization, lab report and excel work, managing new equipment, and more. Geology is all about the big picture analysis. My lessons always encourage looking at the big picture and not getting lost in the details of research.