Researchers of the Month
Deanna Downs & Brooke Peritore
Geology majors, Class of 2021
Research Mentor: Dr. E. Troy Rasbury, Department of Geosciences
Deanna Downs and Brooke Peritore are both seniors engaged in research in the Department of Geosciences under the mentorship of Dr.Troy Rasbury in the Facility for Isotope Research and Student Training (FIRST) Lab. Their introductory research experience (collecting water samples, analyzing Boron isotopes in Long Island groundwater as a way of identifying sources of nitrates) and exposure to isotope and mass spectrometry research and analysis at Stony Brook in Dr. Rasbury's group resulted from their participation in the NSF-funded GeoPATH-IMPACT Summer Research program, while they were students at Suffolk County Community College. Both Deanna and Brooke credit the GeoPATH program for making their transition to Stony Brook as transfer students a smooth one, and for developing their skills in communicating science.
Deanna Downs arrived at Stony Brook in fall 2019 after completing an associate’s degree at Suffolk County Community College, and participated in the NSF-GeoPATH IMPACT research exposure program in both summers 2018 and 2019. Her ongoing research (virtual) in the FIRST lab in summer 2020 was supported by a Blum-URECA fellowship award. A Geology major, Deanna has served as secretary of the Geology Club for the past year, and will be presenting her work at the upcoming URECA symposium in May. In spring 2019, Deanna worked with a local historian to map graves within the Baiting Hollow cemetery using QGIS, analyzing GPR data to look for unmarked graves. Through college, Deanna has worked evenings and weekends in a restaurant to help support college costs. After graduation, Deanna plans to seek employment within the environmental geology or hydrology field, and to defer graduate studies for a few years. She is a graduate of Smithtown High School East, and her hobbies include: hiking, baking, volleyball, and pottery. Deanna enjoys the problem-solving aspect of research, stating that research “gives my classes more meaning, …When I'm taking a class, I always want to know how it can be practically applied, and seeing how it is applied makes me want to learn it more."
Brooke Peritore currently pursues dual majors in Geology and Earth and Space Sciences. She transferred from Suffolk County Community County College to Stony Brook in fall 2019 after participating in the GeoPATH-IMPACT program. Her ongoing research in the Rasbury group in summer 2020 (virtual) was supported by a URECA summer award. Brooke is a member of the Geology club, and the National Society of Leadership and Success. She presented a paper on “Isotopic Evidence in Rainwater for Boron Concentration in Long Island Groundwaters” at the 2020 Long Island Geology Conference; and also recently at the Young investigators Fall Symposium. Brooke has been employed part-time as an intern for New York State Department of Environmental Remediation since August, and intends to pursue a master’s degree in Geology at Stony Brook following graduation to continue her project; long term, she aspires to a career that combines her interests in environmental remediation and environmental education. Brooke is a graduate of Longwood HS. Her hobbies include hiking, and paddle boarding. Reflecting on her research experiences to date, Brooke points to how much she likes “being able to work on finding potential solutions that we could be using in the future for some of our current problems.”
Both Brooke Peritore and Deanna Downs are first generation college students who have helped to support their college costs through off-campus employment. They met initially through the GeoCORE program at Suffolk County Community College where they participated in activities aimed to enhance their academic training and professional development in the field of geosciences. Be sure to look for their posters at the upcoming URECA symposium on May 5!
Below are excerpts of their interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research, and how you first got involved.
Brooke: I am currently working on analyzing boron isotopes in Long Island groundwater, soil, and plant samples. Through this project, we have been able to identify seaweed as a potential alternative to harsh chemical fertilizers and have identified some potential sources for the excess nitrates we see in Long Island waters. We first got involved in a project with Dr. Rasbury through the GeoPATH program.
Deanna: Yes, and since then, we've kind of branched out into two different projects. Right now, I'm looking at the possibility for evidence of compartmentalization in the upper glacial aquifer. If we can better understand if the aquifer is compartmentalized, then it could help us understand how to remediate these areas that are contaminated, and to understand the flow within the aquifer better.
Brooke: I focused on the samples from Setauket Pond mainly during the investigation to find the sources of nitrates. Through this part of the project, we concluded that septic waste is most likely to blame for the excess nitrates in the area, but did not rule out fertilizer as another possible cause. For my URECA project last summer, we expanded the project to attempt to mitigate some of the negative effects of fertilizers. We began looking for other alternatives, and have found seaweed to be a potentially viable one.
Did you need to learn a lot of new skills to be able to work in your lab? Did you have previous exposure to research?
Deanna: We both participated in the GeoPATH program. I participated in 2018 and 2019, and Brooke was in the 2019 program—and for both of us, it was our first exposure to research. When I started working in the lab in 2018, I used one of the mass spectrometers. But then going into 2019, we used a different mass spectrometer. So that meant learning a new set of skills. Through our work in the lab, we've done everything from collecting samples to running them through chemistry to separating out different elements and then analyzing them on the mass spectrometer; as well as analyzing them, putting them into graphs .. all of that!
And how difficult was it for the two of you to adapt to remote research last summer, when COVID restrictions were in place?
Brooke: Our research is hands-on in the lab, running chemistry. So going online was definitely a challenge. But we both were able to still collect samples on our own (you don't need to be around anyone to do that); and we also had the time to dive into the literature to get a stronger background on what other scientists know, and to better grasp what is out there and how we can expand on what others have found.
Deanna: When you are hands-on collecting the samples and running them, it's so exciting that you can kind of get ahead of yourself. So having the time to sit back and concentrate on the literature this past summer was really valuable for us. Being virtual gave us the opportunity to really focus on understanding the background literature we needed for the project.
What do you most enjoy about doing research?
Brooke: Environmental remediation is something I'm pretty passionate about. I really like being able to work on finding potential solutions that we could be using in the future for some of our current problems.
Deanna: I feel the same way. I am a big advocate for practical research, hopefully working towards environmental solutions. I really enjoy the problem-solving aspect of research. Although it can be quite frustrating at some points, that kind of “aha moment” that you have with research is something that I really enjoy. And our lab is really a welcoming community. It's just a great place to be. And it makes school a lot of fun.
Tell me more about the FIRST lab atmosphere. Do you work mostly solo, or with others in the group?
Brooke: We always have a lot of collaboration going on, even when we’re working on our independent projects.
Deanna: Right, and if someone needs to get an abstract out, or they need chemistry run, we will help them out and run different kinds of chemistry for them. We definitely all work together and bounce ideas off of each other quite frequently. It can be intimidating to bring up your ideas to someone who is an expert in their field. But Prof. Rasbury creates a very open and welcoming environment so you always know that you can ask her something, and she's always open to questions and concerns. Even if she has a research question, she'll come and talk to us about it, and bounce ideas off of us …
Brooke: Yes, I agree. Prof. Rasbury always encourages questions. If there’s something that we're struggling with, she is more than willing to explain it to us again, even if she's explained it before. And she definitely bounces ideas off of us, just as much as we bounce ideas off of her.
How has your research experience intersected with coursework for your major?
Deanna: For me, it's nice to see how the classes and the fundamentals can be related to the research. It kind of gives my classes more meaning. When I was taking hydrology, I was excited to see how the material relates to what I’ve been working on in Prof. Rasbury’s research group. There are so many things that I am learning in fundamental classes that I can relate back to the research, and which make it more exciting for me to learn because I can see how the concepts are actually implemented. When I'm taking a class, I always want to know how it can be practically applied, and seeing how it is applied makes me want to learn it more. I think I'm more encouraged to learn because I know that it might be beneficial for my research project.
Brooke: I agree. The fundamentals definitely apply to the research we're doing, and to the critical thinking behind the research. You definitely bring that into your classes, and you just get so much more out of it because you're critically thinking about the concepts you're learning.
What qualities are necessary, or helpful, for doing research?
Brooke: You need to understand that your project is going to change, and that there are going to be times when you're very frustrated. Sometimes the data is not going to look the way you wanted or expected it to look, and you're going to have to really think about what that means and how that affects your project, or how that affects your hypothesis. And you just have to be willing to take that information and run with it. It might not be the outcome you really expected, but it all means something.
Deanna: Yes, I’ve found during the process of doing research that things can change fast. You’ll be looking at the samples for one thing, and then your project can take a total turn where you are looking at all these results, and will realize you need to go in a whole new direction...so you have to be able to adapt. Perseverance is also a necessary quality. Also, having a good mentor is something that has been really helpful for us both. Dr. Rasbury is super understanding that we have courses and that we both work, and understanding of our personal lives. It’s great to have someone that's willing to work with you and your schedule.
What advice do you have for other students about research?
Deanna: I would let them know that professors are more approachable than they think. You just need to get your foot in the door. Luckily for us, it worked out that we started doing research under a great mentor and we really liked the projects that she was offering. But don't be scared if you start research with someone to then say: “This project really isn't for me, I think that I would like to try something else" and then try out doing research with another professor. Because I know people who have done that, and it really worked out for them.
Brooke: I completely agree. When I was at Suffolk, even though everyone was telling me that Stony Brook was a great place to do research, I was somewhat intimidated. But as soon as I got started, I just knew it was a welcoming environment, and I wanted to be involved. So I would say, try to get involved as early as you can. To get involved, you can do research, or be a TA, or do an internship. And you'll get so much more out of your college experience by just getting involved.
Deanna: It’s a great way to meet people too. And that helps you get through school. We've met so many great people through the lab and we do all sorts of activities… playing softball, or having barbecues. It's just a really great community and a great place to be around. You don't really get that unless you take the first step, but once you do, it's really so worth it! The Geosciences department is really tight knit, and everyone is super welcoming.
Brooke: Yes, you can go to basically just knock on anyone’s office door or just walk in and ask a question, and they’ll be more than willing to give you their time and answer your questions. It is a great community.
Do you think you'll stay in touch with each other, after graduation?
Deanna: Oh absolutely!
Brooke: Yes, we’re good friends!