Water for Food

Twenty-Five Years of Being on the Cutting Edge of University of Nebraska Research

February 8, 2016

The University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory, part of the Nebraska Water Center and part of the Daugherty Water for Food Institute, is celebrating its Silver Anniversary this year. The lab is a cutting edge core research facility, located on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, that provides a range of technical services and expertise in analytical and isotopic methods for NU researchers statewide. To do this, the lab uses specialized instrumentation and methods that are available for organic contaminants, heavy metals and stable isotopes in water and environmental samples. It has analyzed literally thousands of samples since it’s founding under the Nebraska Research Initiative in 1990. Few university laboratories in the U.S. offer the extent of advanced analytical services, ability to develop new methodologies and level of quality control demanded by researchers planning to publish their work as at the NU Water Sciences Laboratory.

At its purest form, water is two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen. But water craves other elements and particles, which also are deeply attracted to water. Sometimes these chemical marriages are benign or beneficial, other times they can be problematic, even detrimental.

For 25 years the Water Sciences Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has sussed out these chemical alliances, and in doing so established itself as one of the nation’s premiere laboratories in answering the question of “what’s in the water?”

The lab was founded in 1990 with funding from the Nebraska Research Initiative, which was established by the Nebraska Legislature to promote research in critical areas. Since then, it has become what the university calls a “core research facility” that does work with researchers and scientists in a number of disciplines across colleges and campuses.


The lab’s scientists provide technical services and expertise in analyzing contaminants in water using high-tech instruments. That concept of “expertise” is the critical feature, said Chittaranjan Ray, who directs the University of Nebraska Water Center, of which the Water Sciences Laboratory is a key player.

While the instruments – mass spectrometers, gas or liquid chromatography and other analyzers – run the samples, it’s the design of the experiments and the creation of the processes that develop the samples, and analysis of the findings that differentiate this lab from others, Ray said.

“The human brain is more important than the machinery,” Ray said. “The real difficulty is coming up with the methods of separating the samples and compounds; it’s the design of the experiment, each of which is unique. In academic research, there is a lot of trial and error. In our lab, the scientists are also training students in the methodologies. And it’s a beautiful collaboration with faculty and students that also builds the university’s research capacity and research portfolio.”

“Of the 54 U.S. water centers, just 14 have water sciences labs,” Ray said. “Nebraska’s is one of the biggest and best because of the chemists, interns, students and number of collaborators across so many disciplines.”

Lab director Dan Snow has been affiliated since the beginning in 1990, when he was a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry. Snow’s research Snow contributed field and laboratory methods to the WSL’s first big project, the Management Systems Evaluation Area (MSEA).

The MSEA analyzed thousands of groundwater samples from areas near Shelton to understand how different irrigation practices affected groundwater quality and contamination. Dozens of scientific papers emerged from the studies.

Many of these studies showed that water-conserving irrigation practices not only saved water, Snow said, but they also improved groundwater quality without negatively affecting crop yields.

Subsequent studies suggest that water and fertilizer management practices could be contributing to high rates of naturally occurring uranium in ground water, Snow said. A current federally funded study with UNL scientist Karrie Weber is investigating the specific mechanisms connecting nitrate, irrigation and uranium mobilization.

These and other projects exemplified what Snow calls applied science –– looking for ways to control or minimize negative impacts for future water users.

Twenty-five years ago, the lab was testing mostly for the herbicide atrazine and for nitrates. Since then, instruments have become more sensitive and can test for myriad other contaminants at far smaller concentrations. This is where the lab scientists’ abilities to create methods that exploit the instruments’ capabilities, become critical and evident.

Many of these studies are done at the request of Nebraska’s Natural Resource Districts, who are charged with managing Nebraska’s groundwater. “NRDs want to know where to best spend their resources,” Snow said, “so knowing the source of problems helps to prioritize.”

Snow, Ray and Cassada said the lab has contributed knowledge to the field of
“emerging contaminants,” which include algal toxins, explosives, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, estrogens, antibiotics and illegal drugs. The lab scientists also have developed protocols to analyze for contaminants in foods and food components.
The Nebraska lab is testing for neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide chemically similar to nicotine with controversial environmental impacts.

While much of the lab’s funding comes from Nebraska Research Initiative, Ray said long-range plans include developing a business model that encourages entrepreneurship and frees the lab’s five scientists to collaborate with their university research colleagues. By exploiting their knowledge in the development of experiment protocols and methodologies, Ray said, these scientists can be more efficient.

“I’m very fortunate to have been able to work with faculty and students in so many disciplines during my career,” Snow said “Natural resources, geosciences, life sciences, engineering, economics. I get to dabble in a lot more interesting things than if I were in just one department. It’s enjoyable to meet and work with so many different viewpoints of water.”

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