Jennifer Mosher, Ph.D., grew up playing in the trickling streams behind her childhood home in Salem, Ohio, digging up rocks, observing fish and finding frogs. The water there was cool and clean at least on the surface. But Mosher, now a microbiologist, knows water doesn’t need to take on a dramatic hue or smell to be polluted. Microbes, single-cell organisms that play essential roles in every facet of human life, can be a much better pollution detector than human senses.

Mosher studied microbes and their reactions to contaminated water as part of the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) Faculty Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy, presents opportunities for students of all academic levels, including faculty like Mosher, to study real-world energy and environmental problems in a top-tier federal facility. Mosher, like many HERE participants, intends on submitting her research in a peer-reviewed scientific journal upon completion of the project.

Mosher and her team, composed of microbiologists, chemists, geochemists and environmental scientists, used glass vessels known as bioreactors to examine how subsurface microbial communities react to changes in the chemical composition of groundwater. To do this, they pumped non-contaminated groundwater into several reactors, allowing the microbial community to develop. Then, they introduced filtered groundwater to the process from a distant well with high levels of nitrate, a naturally occurring element that can be toxic in high doses and is also of concern in global carbon cycles.

“We anticipated that the microbial community would shift to resemble that of the distant well,” said Mosher. “We hypothesized that the microbial community assemblages are driven by the physical and chemical composition of the water.”

ORNL Faculty Research Profile: Jennifer Mosher

Jennifer Mosher, Ph.D., participated in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) Faculty Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she studied the behavior of microbes in contaminated water. Pictured above, Mosher is adjusting the flow of incoming groundwater to bioreactors.

Microbes are already used across the world to break down pollutants and neutralize contaminated areas as well as clean waste water to reclaim it as potable. They are also essential in global carbon cycles. The variety of microbes and contaminants is so large, however, that scientists are continuously investigating new interactions. Some microbes may succeed at breaking down certain pollutants, for example, while other pollutants may remain intact. Additionally, some microbes may succeed at breaking down pollutants quicker than other microbes. This holds enormous cost implications.

Mosher spent her summer assembling bioreactors, ensuring they were gas tight and contaminant free, and running experiments.

“No two days were the same,” she said, “which is why I love science.”

Mosher is an assistant professor in microbiology at Marshall University, where she spends time conducting research about aquatic microbial ecology in the on-campus lab. She applied to the HERE program to continue her participation in ORISE-administered research programs; for several years prior, she served as a postdoctoral research associate in ORNL’s bioscience division in the lab of Dwane Elias, Ph.D. The opportunity to engage with top-level scientists and perform high-impact research is what brought her back to the lab, even if only for a summer. After all, she intends to return.

“I’ve always been fascinated with science and nature, and I still am curious as to how things work,” said Mosher. “Once I established my own laboratory, I wanted to return to ORNL to reestablish connections with scientists at the lab and build new collaborations for current and future projects, which I believe I did. I envision coming back to the lab for many summers to come. There’s so much to learn.”