Sarah Opfer collects fish samples for her research

Sarah Opfer collects fish samples for her research.

BGSU student enters national environmental arena

This time next year will find BGSU master’s degree student Sarah Opfer in Washington, D.C. As the recipient of a 2009 Knauss Fellowship, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Opfer will trade long days collecting specimens in Lake Erie and weekends analyzing samples in the lab for urban life and environmental policy work.

Opfer, a biological sciences major from Oak Harbor specializing in aquatic ecology and spatial environmental chemistry, will receive $42,000 to spend a year in the capital working with a federal agency on environmental regulations and policy.

In preparation for beginning the work next February, she will spend a week in Washington in a sort of matchmaking process in which she will interview with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA, NASA and even the State Department. Then she will prioritize which she feels best suit her interests and skills, the agencies will do likewise, and the matches will be made.

“I’ve grown up around the Great Lakes and my research has been on the Great Lakes, so it would be good for me to get more oceanic experience under my belt. It’s a good learning experience for me,” Opfer said.

Opfer, who is co-advised by Dr. Jeffrey Miner, biology, and Dr. John Farver, geology, was in Canada at an International Association of Great Lakes Researchconference presenting her research results when she learned she had been selected for the prestigious award. She is one of two students to be chosen from Ohio among this year’s 51 Knauss fellows.

The Knauss Fellowship, established in 1979 by Sea Grant, a part of NOAA, provides a unique educational experience to students who have an interest in ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources and in the national policy decisions affecting those resources. The program matches highly qualified graduate students with "hosts" in the legislative and executive branches of government for the one-year, paid fellowship. The program is named in honor of one of Sea Grant's founders, former NOAA administrator John A. Knauss.

Local impact of research
Opfer’s master’s thesis deals with heavy metal uptake in burrowing mayflies and contamination in sediments in western Lake Erie. Historically, research has focused on contamination from organic compounds in the lake, including PCBs. But heavy metals—such as cadmium, zinc and lead—can also present health dangers if consumed, Opfer noted. Cadmium, for example, used by the metal-plating industry and in nickel-cadmium and solar batteries, is a neurotoxin.

“Sarah's research indicates that these heavy metals are reaching levels of health concern, especially in sediments in the middle of the western Lake Erie basin,” Miner said.  The research was supported by a grant from the Lake Erie Protection Fund to her co-advisers.
Mayfly nymphs spend one to two years in the sediment at the bottom of the lake before rising to the surface for their one-day life, during which they mate. Their eggs drop back to the bottom to begin the cycle again. The emerging mayflies are most abundant in June and early July and are eagerly eaten by important sport fish such as yellow perch.

“We’re not sure yet if there is ‘trophic transfer’ of these heavy metals from the mayflies to the fish and to humans who eat the fish,” Opfer said. Determining that will be a later step in the research.

In spring 2007, she collected mayfly specimens and lake sediment samples, which she analyzed with a new, optical emissions spectrometer in the geochemistry laboratory at BGSU. “So far, we’ve found higher metal concentrations in the middle of the lake than near the shore,” she said. These toxic metals appear to adhere to organic sediment particles that are lightweight and drift into deeper areas of western Lake Erie. Less turbulence from waves in these deep areas allows the heavy-metal-bound particles to settle. However, this is also where the mayfly nymphs are abundant and consuming the sediments.

“Ongoing research is addressing whether these heavy metals in sediment and insects are accumulating in yellow perch when the insects become available as prey in June and July,” Miner said.

While Opfer is in Washington, the research will be continued by Farver and Miner. Other graduate and undergraduate students are ready to take on the project.

For more information on the Knauss Fellowship program, visit

August 4, 2008