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UMaine Grad Student Develops an App for Measuring Water Quality

A new app developed by a University of Maine graduate student allows iPhone users to take water quality measurements.

“The end result we want is to crowdsource water quality data,” says the 23-year-old oceanography student from Lincoln, Vt.

As part of his master’s thesis, Thomas Leeuw developed HydroColor, an app that uses three photos to measure the reflectance of natural water bodies. Based on the reflectance values, the turbidity or level of suspended sediment in a given water body can be measured.

“What we’re measuring is the reflectance of the water and the particles inside it,” Leeuw says. “To make reflectance measurements, oceanographers use precision instruments called radiometers. HydroColor is taking what a lot of ocean scientists do with radiometers and satellites, and applying it to an iPhone camera.”

The process requires three photographs, beginning with a photographer’s gray card, which calibrates the app based on how much ambient illumination is present. Gray cards reflect 18 percent of the light in the area, giving the app an initial reading of how much light is entering the water.

Next, the app directs the user to take a photograph of the sky. The app uses this image to control for the amount of light from the sky that is being reflected by the surface of the water. Surface reflection — such as the blue color seen when looking at a body of water on a clear day — offers no information about the turbidity of the water because it is light reflected by the surface of the water, not reflected from particles suspended in it.

The final photograph taken is of the water itself, which the app evaluates after controlling for surface reflection. The magnitude of reflected light in the red portion of the visible spectrum can be used to assess turbidity.

The reflected light can also offer information about the type of particles in the water.

“Turbidity actually is a measure of sidescattering, but you can use it to estimate the concentration of particles, in grams per meter cubed, so we’re able to convert turbidity to physical values,” Leeuw says.

In addition, the makeup of particles can be inferred based on the color of light reflected. Organic particles typically contain pigments that absorb light only in certain regions of the visible spectrum. This will cause the reflectance signal to vary across the visible spectrum. Inorganic particles do not contain pigments and their reflectance signature does not vary greatly across the visible spectrum.

By aggregating data from many people over large spatial and temporal scales, HydroColor can determine the typical turbidity or chlorophyll values for different environments. The interactive online database can then be used by laypeople or lake association officials to help monitor for changes, such as increased occurrence of algal blooms or erosion leading to higher suspended sediment.

Turbidity is one of many parameters for measuring water quality. Chlorophyll, for instance, reflects mostly green light and can offer a measure of the amount of algal particles in the water body. Using the different reflectance characteristics, Leeuw says HydroColor could be expanded to offer a more comprehensive readout of water quality measurements.

Leeuw next hopes to find an online host for user-gathered water quality data. “Eventually we’re going to have a button in the app so after you take a measurement, you can upload it to an online database,” he says. “The idea is that the database is open to everyone, it is a place where people can look at and compare measurements from all over the world.”

Understanding how water quality parameters like turbidity change over time is critical for scientists in many fields, Leeuw says. “One turbidity level is not necessarily better than another. We’re just very interested in fluctuations. It’s a tool for looking at changes in the environment.”

Leeuw hopes HydroColor will also provide an inexpensive, accessible learning tool for science classrooms. Compared to a professional radiometer, which can be cost-prohibitive for most classrooms, iPhones are becoming ubiquitous among students, and gray cards generally cost less than $5.

“It’s an extremely cheap lesson using a lot of technology. You can not only use it to learn about environmental science, but optics, technology and app development,” Leeuw says. “Right now, it is only for iPhone, but we’re thinking about hiring a developer to convert it to Android as well.”

Although he had experience programming before turning to app development, Leeuw had to teach himself Objective-C, the language used for the iOS platform. But developing HydroColor demanded more than learning a new programming language. The project has been in progress for about two years, a time span that has allowed Leeuw and his adviser, UMaine professor Emmanuel Boss, to gather hundreds of photos while on other excursions.

“We’d always be doing our other research, but then we’d run over and snap a few pictures to continue with development,” Leeuw says. “We used (research) trips of opportunity — anywhere we’d go, we’d make sure to grab some data.”

Those “trips of opportunity” have allowed Leeuw to aggregate images from all over the coast of Maine, Georgia and Washington, and many locations in the Arctic. Leeuw sailed to the Arctic with Boss as part of a project to study Arctic phytoplankton.

Now that HydroColor is available in the Apple app store, Leeuw’s goal is in sight. He presented his app to the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu in February and hopes to publish the project in a journal.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

DMC Student ‘Pays it Forward’ at Ocean Sciences Meeting, Hawaii News Now Reports

University of Maine graduate student Noah Oppenheim was interviewed for a Hawaii News Now story about marine scientists and students attending the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu who participated in dives to clean up debris littering a coral reef. Oppenheim, who is pursuing dual degrees in marine biology and marine policy at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, helped remove trash from the reef, including fast food containers, bits of plastic, aluminum cans, a car battery, an outboard motor and an automobile tire.

Doctoral Student Wins Scholarship to Promote Advanced Polymer Composite Materials

Alper Kiziltas, a doctoral student in the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, was named by the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) as the recipient of the 2013–2014 PerkinElmer Graduate Scholarship.

The PerkinElmer Instruments Co., in conjunction with the Composites Division of SPE, sponsors the annual $2,000 scholarship dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of information on the science, engineering fundamentals and applications of advanced polymer composite materials. This year, more than 40 applications were reviewed and judged by six members of the SPE Composites Division.

Kiziltas will accept the award in April during SPE’s annual technical conference — ANTEC 2014 — in Las Vegas. His research, as described in the winning abstract, will be presented at the conference.

Kiziltas conducts research at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center under the supervision of Douglas Gardner, professor of forest operations, bioproducts and bioenergy, and in collaboration with Hemant Pendse, department chair of chemical and biological engineering.

Kiziltas is currently working in composite material development and processing, including nanocomposites and reinforced engineering plastics for automotive applications. His particular interest lies in the development of sustainable composite materials sourced from recyclable materials such as bio-based resins, cellulose, discarded carpet fibers and natural fibers that serve as reinforcements for bio-based micro- and nanocomposites. His work is supported by UMaine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Alper’s research skills span over diverse fields such as nanomaterials, polymer processing, bio-based composites and sustainability. He is extremely innovative, unpretentious, collegial and cooperative,” says Gardner.

Kiziltas spent the 2013 summer and fall semesters working in plastics research at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. While at Ford, he studied ways to extend the use of soy in polyurethane flexible foams for seat cushions and seat backs as well as sustainable nylon composites for under-the-hood applications.

Kiziltas is the author of more than 10 publications in journals such as Applied Nanoscience and the Journal of Nanoparticle Research. He has presented results of his research in several national and international conferences and has won more than 15 awards including Automotive Composites Conference & Exhibition (ACCE) Graduate Scholarship Award from the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), the Dean’s Undergraduate Mentoring Award at UMaine’s 2013 Grad Expo, first place in the 2012–2013 SPE ACCE poster competition, and 2013 outstanding Ph.D. student in UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture.

UMaine Grad Student, Veteran Featured in Runner’s World Article

Joe Miller, a University of Maine graduate student studying history, was featured in the March issue of Runner’s World magazine. In the article “Running Back from Hell,” Miller shared his experience about running to cope with PTSD after several deployments to Iraq with the Army. He said the simplicity of running helps him control anger and frustration. He prefers 50-milers as opposed to shorter distances because the ultramarathons require more planning and preparation, which is what he says he was good at in the military. He’s now training for a 100-mile race.

BDN Publishes Butler’s Sixth Profile on Struggling Mainers

The Bangor Daily News published the sixth article in a yearlong series by Sandra Butler, a professor of social work at the University of Maine, and Luisa Deprez, a professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. “First a parent, then a scholar: How this Maine woman finally completed college,” is the pair’s latest column to share stories of Mainers struggling in today’s economy. The article focuses on UMaine graduate student Elizabeth “Liz” Franck.

WABI, WVII Interview Grad Student About Sap Research

WABI (Channel 5) and WVII (Channel 7) interviewed Jenny Shrum, a Ph.D. candidate in the ecology and environmental sciences graduate program in the University of Maine School of Biology and Ecology. Shrum is researching the biophysical relationships between weather and sap flow. Her goal is to better understand what drives flow and how expected trends in climate may affect the processes and harvesters in the future. Shrum showed the reporters two of her research sites where she is tapping and has set up weather stations. The Weekly also carried a report on Shrum’s research.

MPBN Cites UMaine Study on Lake Clarity

A Maine Public Broadcasting Network report titled “Bill to protect Maine lakes sparks disagreement,” cited information from former University of Maine graduate student Ian McCullough’s study on water clarity in Maine lakes. The study found the clarity in Maine’s lakes has declined since 1995.

Penobscot Bay Pilot Reports on Device Developed to Detect Pathogens

The Penobscot Bay Pilot reported on a handheld device developed by University of Maine researchers to quickly detect disease-causing and toxin-producing pathogens such as algal species that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. The device — called a colorimeter — could be instrumental in monitoring coastal water in real-time, thereby preventing human deaths and beach closures. Janice Duy, a recent graduate of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering led the research team that included UMaine professors Rosemary Smith, Scott Collins and Laurie Connell.

Graduate Student and Faculty Recognition Ceremony to be Held May 9

The University of Maine Graduate School will hold the 27th annual Graduate Student and Faculty Recognition Ceremony from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday, May 9 in the Alfond Arena. A reception in the Memorial Gym will immediately follow the hooding ceremony. For disability accommodations or for more information, visit the Graduate School website, email or call 207.581.3291.

WVII Interviews Connell About Device Developed to Quickly Detect Pathogens

WVII (Channel 7) spoke with Laurie Connell, a research professor in the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences, about a handheld device she helped develop to quickly detect disease-causing and toxin-producing pathogens such as algal species that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. Connell said the device — called a colorimeter — could be used by government agencies for water sampling. The device could be instrumental in monitoring coastal water in real-time, thereby preventing human deaths and beach closures. also carried a report about the device.


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