Queens Magazine

Queens Magazine Fall/Winter 2012/13

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Serving Our Borough and Beyond By Donna Shoemaker America's finest colleges and universities all have one thing in common: Besides providing an excellent education to their students, they are an invaluable resource to the families and businesses in their communities, offering many kinds of assistance and conducting research that benefits everyone. At Queens College, service is in our DNA; our motto since we first opened our doors in October 1937 has been Discimus ut Serviamus (We learn so that we may serve). Gregory O'Mullan,Tarry Hum, and Yvette Caro are just three examples of how our faculty are a strong force in the borough of Queens and beyond, from monitoring the health of the city's waterways to counseling children and adults in psychological need. GREGORY O'MULLAN Protecting the Fluid Assets of New York No longer scorned as an industrial cesspool, the Hudson River beckons to kayakers and canoeists, swimmers and fishers, waders with kids and dogs tagging along. More parks now line its banks. Above Poughkeepsie, it's a source of drinking water. Yet how can recreationists be sure the water won't make them sick? Like the salty tides that enrich its ecosystem and the sewage overflows that pollute it, this estuary's water quality ebbs and flows. Gregory O'Mullan, a Queens College environmental microbiologist, was shocked by "the lack of easily accessible information" about the Hudson's water quality—when and where it's safe. So beginning as a postdoc in 2006, before joining QC two years later, he immersed himself in getting to the source. O'Mullan partnered with colleagues at Columbia University and Riverkeeper—the proto- type of now more than 200 clean water watchdogs internationally. On Riverkeeper's patrol boat, over five years and frequent expeditions, he took more than 2,000 water samples at 75 sites (from Battery Park to just north of Albany) to test and analyze. The resulting data he and others collected—Riverkeeper's How Is the Water?: 2006–2010—tracked sewage indicators in this tidal estuary. Partnering between academic institutions and NGOs is "exactly the kind of science we should be doing—feeding back into New Yorkers' daily lives," O'Mullan says. "I became more and more interested in having the science that I do make a difference. It was especially important to be doing that in my own area." An assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, O'Mullan studies how bacteria, harmful and helpful, affect aquatic environments. "Eyes and ears don't necessarily do a good job informing us about microbial contamination," he notes. "The locations where you think everything must be fine can be the places that are the most contaminated. There's no substitute for data." Now that the Hudson is much cleaner, "There are lots of reasons to be opti- mistic, but we're not quite there yet," O'Mullan believes. "Thinking back on why the water quality has improved so dramatically," he relates, "the 14 state-ofthe-art waste water treatment plants do a tremendous job. It's a great story of capital investment leading to improvements in the environment." At least that's true for most of the year. New York City uses a combined sewer/ stormwater drainage system to transport waste water to treatment plants. However, on the 50 or so downpour days each year, "all that extra rainwater that enters into the storm drains on the side of the road exceeds the capacity of the sewer pipes," O'Mullan explains, "and it's released at 400 to 500 overflow points into the river, 27 to 30 billion gallons a year of untreated sewage. That's why an average measurement doesn't tell the whole story." Overflows also degrade the semi-enclosed Flushing Bay, though its water quality has improved, he has found. O'Mullan's overflowing passion for his research and his user-friendly style of communicating it are evident as he connects with community groups. "I'm a scientist. I'm collecting data. But how great it is to see that data being put into

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