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Chemistry in the Mountains


One might not expect Caleb Phelan ’22, as a chemistry major, to spend a lot of time conducting academic research while camping in the mountains. But that’s exactly what he’s been doing this summer since part of his project is to measure and analyze the levels of two major pollutants in Adirondack water.

“I combined chemistry with my love for the Adirondacks,” Phelan said.

The aforementioned pollutants are road salts, used in winter months to improve road conditions, and acid rain, which come from pollutants in the air that are deposited by smokestacks and Midwest factories, Phelan explained. Alongside Associate Professor of Chemistry Adam Van Wynsberghe and Lecturer in Chemistry Greg Rahn, Phelan has taken several trips to sites around the vast Adirondack Park to gather a representative collection of samples to test in the lab.                                                           

Caleb Phelan ’22

Major: Chemistry

Hometown: Schoharie, N.Y.

High School: The Albany Academy

read about other student research 

Most of the work, Phelan noted, is still being done in a Hamilton lab, where the water samples and resulting data are analyzed. The idea for this project came about after Phelan spoke with a fellow chemistry student who had done water testing in the past and enjoyed the experience of being outside the lab for a while.

“I wanted to enjoy summer weather while also doing some science,” Phelan said. “And I also liked the independence. When you sign on for summer science with a professor in the lab, you’re kind of tied to their research, but this way I was able to do my own thing.”

On the hikes to obtain water samples, Phelan has spent plenty of time with his two professors. He highlighted this opportunity as one unique to a small college, remarking that “that’s what the Hamilton staff is all about.” The willingness to drive up into the mountains to help with his project, Phelan said, is amazing.

He will be comparing the data collected this summer to historical data from the last two decades to determine where and how pollutant levels are changing. So far, Phelan reported that things seem to be improving. “The amount of pollutants in the air that are getting into the water is going down, the lakes are less acidic (which is better for wildlife),” he said. “This is in large part due to clean air laws that regulate what sort of things factories can be dumping into the air, so clean energy initiatives have had a good effect on this.” 

Despite these positive developments, Phelan did mention that road salt levels are going up, indicating that counties are dumping increasing amounts of salt onto the roads each winter. In the summary of his findings, he said that he might explore and suggest alternatives to such heavy road salt use in an effort to further mitigate the pollutant levels of Adirondack water sources.

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