Student’s search for new adventure leads her to important research opportunity

By Maria Gabriela Starchek

Grace Oldfield stand by her research poster at the 2021 FIU REU symposium.
Grace Oldfield standing by her research poster at the 2021 FIU REU symposium.

Grace Oldfield has always had an interest in water resources, but her fascination with water research grew the more she visited and spent time with her family on the beaches of Melbourne, Fla.  

“Florida seemed to be a potential opportunity for me to get the coastal and marine research experience I’ve never had in Ohio,” Oldfield said.

In her search for summer programs, Oldfield – a student from the University of Dayton – found the FIU Institute of Environment’s Coastal Ecosystems Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Institute professors Jayantha Obeysekera and Michael Sukop welcomed Oldfield to join their team of researchers. With mentorship from her near-peer mentor, Ph.D. student Miguel Valencia, Oldfield spent the summer analyzing data from the United States Geological Survey and Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department.

Oldfield’s work this summer was focused on trying to identify locations in south Florida where contamination could be found to have discharged. Sea level rise, which elevates coastal groundwater levels, can sometimes cause septic tanks to fail and potentially contaminate groundwater. In her research, Oldfield simulated the movement of this contaminated groundwater by creating a model of the phenomenon in a program called ModelMuse. Using GIS maps, Oldfield visually presented the simulation so it could be easily interpreted by scientists tracking where the contaminated water ends up. The results of her research can be used to inform decision-makers to support water quality sampling and identify specific areas in need of infrastructure improvement.

“It is extremely important to work on infrastructure improvement before it is too late, and this research is the first step to taking action,” Oldfield said.

Keeping septic systems a safe distance above groundwater level is crucial for them to function properly. Although sea level rise is often only associated with surface water, it can also elevate groundwater levels. Rising sea levels that cause groundwater levels to rise can in turn cause septic systems to malfunction which results in wastewater going directly into the groundwater instead of being treated properly. 

Oldfield inputted the data collected into a modeling program to more effectively visualize her results. These visualizations pinpoint contaminated areas and could indicate where potential public health or environmental concerns, like algal blooms, may arise.

Oldfield plans on pursuing a master’s degree focused on the environment and sustainability after she graduates. In the future, she would like to work for a lab and lead her own research in coastal ecosystem conservation.