Environmental science professor provides students real-world research experience

Environmental science students receive hands-on experience with Philadelphia soil sample project. 

By Matthew De George

Florence Ling, Ph.D., doesn’t waste any time with her introductory environmental science students. In the first courses of their major, they are out of the classroom and into the field—to test soil, to measure water quality, to engage with the community that lives in the environment where that science happens.

“We don’t do science in a bubble,” said Ling, an assistant professor of environmental science at La Salle University. “We do it in a way that we want it to make an impact.”

“We don’t do science in a bubble. We do it in a way that we want it to make an impact.”

One of those avenues for impact has grown out of research by Ling and her students. They’ve launched a public database of “Lead Contamination in Philadelphia Soils,” starting with assays in the neighborhood around La Salle. It’s a collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET), looking to extend the work that group has done in University City to other areas of Philadelphia. By partnering with CEET and Clean Water Action, Ling and her students connect with communities across the city and provide valuable data on one of the most prevalent environmental pollutants in urban environments. Through the end of 2021, the project has mapped data points in more than 30 neighborhoods in Philadelphia, via direct measurements and samples received from the community. The partnership provides a new tool for local public health agencies to identify neighborhoods that may warrant additional blood screening for early detection of elevated blood lead levels in children.

The research is a natural extension of Ling’s teaching approach. Environmental science requires real-world application, something Ling has carried from her research as an environmental mineralogist studying soil and water contamination from mining and fracking. Her specialty involves understanding how minerals can be used to remove environmental contaminants.

In her class for first-year students, she exposes students to practical uses right away. The intro course includes lab work sampling soil near campus to track how lead levels change as you move further away from roadways. (Though gasoline no longer contains lead, its longtime use is a primary source of urban lead pollution, along with now-phased-out lead house paints.)   A unit on water quality involves trips to Penllyn natural area to measure macroinvertebrate diversity. She thinks of Philadelphia as a “classroom lab” where students can make discoveries and produce useful science.

Putting classroom lectures into practice makes abstract concepts tangible and piques students’ curiosity about where their studies can take them.

Image of a student working.“Having a part of the classroom that’s outside instead of inside is always great,” says Joshua Weir, ’22, who works on the lead contamination project with Ling. “You study all the time to be a ‘scientist,’ but you don’t really feel it until you’re out there with your trowel digging up some soil and getting ready to test it in a lab.  It’s a different feeling, and it makes you more excited for education rather than just sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh, there’s the next test I have to take.’”

Ling stokes that curiosity through a number of projects. The environmental science curriculum at La Salle fuses the local perspective with the global—from how pollution manifests in the neighborhood to how it tracks historically across the globe. Other courses include presentations to community groups, with students providing kid-friendly activities used to demonstrate concepts to young learners. 

Those hands-on experiences, Weir said, have made what he’s learning in the classroom feel more real and has opened his eyes to potential career pathways.

“It’s not just about us as researchers and students prepping (samples) and running them through the lab, but this research is about getting our local community aware of the different lead levels in our parks where our kids and our friends go and play,” he said. “What we’re working on is trying to get people to know how healthy their local area is.”

Ling hopes to make La Salle an increasingly prominent stakeholder in Philadelphia around pollution awareness. Partnering with Penn is one way to accomplish that; at the heart is remembering the reach of the work. It’s not just the rote facts of a lecture, she said, or even the application of those concepts in the field.

It’s doing it all with an understanding and appreciation of the people who are affected by that environment.

“The way that I want to relate it to my students,” Ling said, “is to show them what they learn in the classroom and what they learn in research, there are applications, even though we’re working on this tiny part of it.” 

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