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Posted 3/3/2016

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By Mike W. Petersen
U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Public Affairs

Among a cluster of small greenhouses on the Engineer Research and Development Center’s campus in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dr. Catherine Thomas was troubleshooting bubbles on a Friday morning.

Surrounded by open tanks of clear water, Thomas was preparing experiments as part of her latest research into innovative ways to combat blue-green algae.

While unassuming at first glance, the water tanks represent the next research effort in a career that has already improved human understanding and produced positive change, earning Thomas recognition as the 2016 Minority in Research Science Emerald Honoree Most Promising Scientist Award at the 30th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“It’s definitely an honor to be selected, but to me the greatest honor is that my branch chief would nominate me,” Thomas said. “We’re a close-knit branch and [Branch Chief Dr. Andy Martin] really knows our strengths and where we can be the most productive. He knows that I love being in the lab. I love doing research.”

It’s that passion for research that stands out to Martin and ERDC leadership, who nominated Thomas for the BEYA Emerald Award. Martin sees Thomas’ love of research as a critical ingredient for the future efforts of ERDC, which has a history of groundbreaking research and innovation.

“Catherine is a brilliant scientist, and she has an extraordinary future here with ERDC,” Martin said. “As research changes, new needs come up. She’s eager to pick up a new challenge and run with it.”

Thomas grew up in Port Gibson, Mississippi, just a short drive down Highway 61 from the laboratories where she works today. She first joined ERDC in 2006 while a graduate student at Alcorn State University after seeing a flier for student jobs at ERDC. Initially, she provided administrative support to the Environmental Engineering Branch in ERDC’s Environmental Laboratories but was soon presented the opportunity to work on research.  

At first, Thomas supported other projects as she completed her master’s degree. During this time she was invited to work on research that would shape her doctoral thesis and have far-reaching impacts on the Army.

“My first project was on plant stabilization of heavy metals on firing ranges, including lead, copper, zinc and antimony,” Thomas said. “What we saw was some plant species actually increase lead mobility through the soil. Usually grasses act as a physical barrier, but something about these plants was increasing the transport of lead.”

Over the course of the next few years, Thomas developed her expertise on the use of plants to reduce the migration of munitions contaminants, such as explosives and heavy metals. Her research has helped validate the use of “green” ammo, the M855A-1 Enhanced Performance Round all-copper round, already in use by the Army to reduce environmental impacts on firing ranges.

With 10 years at ERDC, Thomas is continuing to conduct important research. After extensive work on how different plants affect the transport of heavy metal contamination, Thomas is looking at another problem that has far-reaching impacts on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, water resources and the environment.  

Soon the water in the tanks Thomas was tending would be home to several types of blue-green algae – cyanobacteria – that can create hazards to human and environmental health. A blue-green algal bloom can reduce oxygen levels and cause fish kills, prevent the growth of beneficial bacteria and release toxins in the water harmful to wildlife and humans. And so Thomas is troubleshooting bubbles.  

As she tried to get a pump attachment working, she explained blue-green algae is a challenge because chemical treatments can have undesirable environmental impacts, and mechanical removal of the algae can make the problem worse, releasing cyanotoxins into the water. That’s where the bubbles come in: when bubbles burst in the water beneath the algae, free oxygen radicals bond with the toxins released from the cyanobacteria and neutralize it.

“We had a smaller water tank with one of the more common types of cyanobacteria in it,” Thomas said, describing an early test of the concept. “After a few minutes of running the pump, the water was clear.” 

At a microscopic scale, a chemical change is happening that provides a sustainable solution to a common environmental problem. While there is still much research and testing to be done, the potential for Thomas’ research could provide an essentially open-source solution to some strains of blue-green algae.

“Anyone with a water pump could potentially use this method,” she said. “You don’t need expensive equipment or potentially dangerous chemicals.”

It’s not just her innovative research that Thomas is eager to share. She participates in community outreach efforts, such as the Jackson State University’ “UNITE” camp, a pre-collegiate summer program for high school students from groups historically underrepresented and underserved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and is a vocal champion for STEM careers, using her own story as a catalyst for young students to explore their options.

“I believe you have to know where your interests truly lie. If you go into something for the money, or choose a career for probability of success, you won’t be that productive. It’s most important to know your interests and explore every opportunity to find out what you like to do at the undergraduate level,” Thomas said. “I want to open their eyes to the fact that there are so many areas you can go into.”