Villanova junior Natalie Flinn has been awarded a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Greater Research Opportunities Fellowship to study the environmental impact of snow-melting salts on plant growth.
Flinn is one of 39 recipients from around the country who will receive funding from the EPA to conduct independent scientific research. The highly selective program also includes a scholarship and a summer internship.
Flinn’s research project is a controlled experiment studying the effects of salt runoff on northern red oak trees.
She chose the northern red oak as her test subject because it is commonly found in the Northeast. In particular, the species is frequently placed in cities and on campuses and locations where the plant life often comes in contact with de-icing salts.
Flinn plans to buy two-month-old red oak trees and place them in varying water solutions. The solutions will be created on a gradient system with different amounts of snow-melting salts.
Because de-icing salts often dissolve in the water from melting snow, she aims to mimic the water runoff absorbed by trees after snowstorms.
“When you think about it, you only put de-icing salt on the ground when there’s snow or ice, and when it melts, it melts the salt as well,” Flinn said.
“I’m trying to see what effect that has running off into the environment.”
Her hypothesis is that the trees grown in solutions with higher salt concentrations will display stunted growth. She predicts that the dissolved salt will also affect the health of the soil.
Flinn is from Miami, Fla., and had not encountered a snowstorm before coming to Villanova. When she first saw snow-melting salt placed on the ground, she had to ask what it was.
It was then that she became curious about the impact of placing such large quantities of salt into the environment.
Her earliest research began in an environmental science class, when Flinn and two classmates conducted a semester-long project related to snow-melting salts.
When it came time to apply for the fellowship, she decided to expand the study and make it more applicable to Northeastern cities.Her application included the research proposal as well as several essays and letters of recommendation.
Flinn’s academic adviser, Lisa Rodrigues, has been a huge support in applying for the fellowship.
“Natalie’s achievement is an excellent example of how a class assignment begun in her freshmen year can translate into something with significance to the community,” Rodrigues said.
“Her research on snow and ice melters is especially relevant at this time of year as they are extensively applied to roads and sidewalks during the winter months.”
Flinn will begin conducting research this semester and will continue until spring semester of her senior year. At that time she will write a paper on the results of her experiment, with the goal of having it published in an academic journal.
Flinn has been interested in environmental issues since high school. She is an environmental studies major and plans to attend law school to become an environmental attorney.
The fellowship includes a summer internship at one of the EPA’s regional headquarters.
Flinn is thankful for the exposure to working for the EPA, as she hopes to someday work for either the EPA or an environmental nonprofit.
Though her career plans are geared more toward policy-making, she is glad for the opportunity to conduct original environmental research.
“The effect of salts hasn’t really been studied in a controlled experiment before, so it’s kind of exciting that it’s being studied in this way,” she said.
Flinn is certainly no stranger to environmental research. Her previous experiences include a project with the biology department studying the effects of oil development on plant health in Alberta, and a project studying bio-diesel in Florida.
“Seeing where the research that I’ve helped with has gone has inspired me to do my own thing,” she said.
Flinn is involved with a number of other on-campus environmental initiatives and organizations.
She is a member of the President’s Environmental Sustainability Committee and is a student facilitator for the freshmen environmental learning community.
She is also the local outreach chair for the Villanova community garden.
“I’m doing this because I’m passionate about it,” Flinn said.
“It’s definitely what I want to do with my life. I would encourage everyone to pursue something they’re passionate about, because if you like what you’re doing, it’s not really work.”