Doing What Needs to be Done to Protect Nebraskans from Dangerous Chemicals: Brought to You by Tenure

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, PhD
Department Chair
Donald R. Voelte, Jr. and Nancy A. Keegan Chair of Engineering and Professor
Civil and Environmental Engineering

An interview with Dr. Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, Donald R. Voelte, Jr. and Nancy A. Keegan Chair of Engineering, Professor, and Department Chair in Civil and Environmental Engineering. This interview is part of our series on the importance of tenure.

Dr. Shannon Bartelt-Hunt is a tenured Professor and Department Chair in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNL, where she works on understanding how contaminants move through our environment with potential environmental and human health impacts. I recently had a chance to talk with Dr. Bartelt-Hunt about her work and how tenure has contributed to her ability to make a difference in the lives of Nebraskans. Importantly, Dr. Bartelt-Hunt’s story shows how tenure can enable faculty members to invest their time and expertise in projects where there is an immediate need, without letting the availability of grant funding dictate what work can and cannot be done. Dr. Bartelt-Hunt also discusses how tenure shifts a faculty member’s time horizon, allowing them to engage in high-impact, long-term research that otherwise might not be possible. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: What brought you to UNL, and how long have you been here?

Bartelt-Hunt: I have been here at UNL since 2006. I came here from a postdoc, and I was specifically looking for a tenure-track position. I really wanted that balance of teaching, research, and service in my work, which was a huge part of why I didn’t even consider a non-tenure track position. So that is what brought me to Nebraska, and I have been here ever since! Now of course I am a full professor and chair of our department.

Niehaus: Tell me about your work – how does your research make a difference here in Nebraska?

Bartelt-Hunt: A lot of my work centers around how contaminants move in our environment. The reason we are interested in these contaminants is because they have either environmental health or human health impacts.

One project that I am working on is a citizen science project where people across the state can test their water for nitrates. A lot of people in Nebraska have private wells, and it can be really confusing to figure out how to test your well every year. Where do I send a sample? How do I collect a sample? So we created a program that gives people a screening tool to find out more about their home water quality. If they find they are exceeding the drinking water standard for nitrate, we connect them with extension resources or state resources to help them address that in their homes.

This project started because I had a colleague who was interested in citizen science, and we had done some collaborative work testing out methods for people to be taking water quality measurements. And then we just said, hey, we need to start deploying this, putting this into people’s hands so they can test the water quality in their homes. And now we are coming up on five years of this project, with 500 or 600 participants across the state. And I think people are happy to get some help testing their water. It is free for people, it is simple for them to do, and it helps them get information on the quality of their water. And that is really important for everybody’s health that is living in their home.

Niehaus: Why is it so important for folks to test for nitrates in their well water?

Bartelt-Hunt: There are some health impacts that are known from drinking water with high levels of nitrate, like methemoglobinemia, which is also called blue baby syndrome. But there are also a lot of suspected links between cancer and nitrate exposure. So if folks find out that they have high levels of nitrate through our program, we can connect them with resources in extension, and we are also partnering with some NRDs who provide the next level of testing. The State of Nebraska also has a program where you can get a reverse osmosis filter installed in your home if you have high nitrate levels. We are trying to connect people with different resources that are available so they can address the situation if they do have high nitrate levels.

Niehaus: How has having tenure helped you engage in this type of work?

Bartelt-Hunt: Well, this isn’t a funded project. But because I have tenure, I do have the ability to work on some of these projects that aren’t necessarily paying my salary. If I was in a research position, then I pretty much have to charge my entire salary to funded projects – so I could only work on things that people will fund.

Niehaus: What other projects have you been working on?

Bartelt-Hunt: Some of the chemicals I focus on are what we call emerging contaminants, which means they are newer contaminants that we don’t always have regulatory standards for. Something like nitrates, for example, has been regulated; there’s a certain level that has been determined to be safe. But a lot of the compounds that I focus on – antibiotics, steroid hormones, etc. – aren’t regulated. There are these things that are present in the environment that can potentially cause health impacts, but we don’t yet have standards developed to regulate them. So it’s really important that we have information on where those chemicals are and how they are moving in the environment. Being in Nebraska, I obviously focus a lot on how those chemicals are moving in agricultural systems.

One project I am working on related to emerging contaminants is the water quality impacts of AltEn, the ethanol plant by Mead that was producing ethanol from pesticide treated seed corn. Solid waste from ethanol production is usually fed to cattle, but this waste had such high levels of pesticide that it couldn’t be fed to animals. Instead it was piling up on the site. There was also a lot of wastewater being produced, and the lagoons they were holding that water in had leaking liners. They were applying some of the solid waste as fertilizer, which was contaminating the soil, and there was a flood from a pipe that broke out there. So this all distributed the contaminated waste.

You may have seen in the news that when the plant was operating, people were complaining about the smell, about pets and people being sick. Now that the plant has closed the State Department of the Environment has been focused on cleaning up the site, but a lot of these contaminants are not regulated. There is a combination of pesticides and fungicides that can have health consequences if you are exposed to them, so the people who live there are obviously very concerned about what might be present in the environment.

When this first came to light, a group of us from Engineering, the School of Natural Resources, and the College of Medicine started working together to focus on the movement of these contaminants off site. We have been monitoring the surface water, establishing a health registry, researching ecological health – and long-term we will be able to see if there is a link between the environmental occurrence of these chemicals and the observations of either the human health or environmental health groups. This will provide really important information on the impacts of producing ethanol from treated seed. This plant was unique in how much treated seed they were using in their production process, but there are other plants where some fraction of their seed stock is treated seed and we don’t have a good handle on that practice in general.

We are still analyzing a lot of data, but this data would not have existed if we hadn’t been able to step in and do the work. There is no regulatory mechanism for these chemicals that would have led to the collection of those human health and environmental samples. Eventually we did receive funding from the State of Nebraska, but this all started out with us realizing we had to just go out and do the work.

Niehaus: So it sounds like similar to the nitrate citizen science project, in this case tenure enabled you to do necessary and important work that wasn’t yet funded?

Bartelt-Hunt: Yes, tenure allows for the flexibility to be able to do something like this, the flexibility to respond when things come up that we need to address. If you are not in a tenured position, most of your work has to be funded by an agency or an organization before you can even get started. So that would mean that instead of jumping in and starting to collect the data we needed to understand the impact of the AltEn plant on the local community, we would have had to write grants and secure funding first. But sometimes these projects just have to be done because they are directly impacting people here in Nebraska, and we need to be able to collect time-sensitive information. Being in a tenured position gave me a little more flexibility to do that.

With the nitrate testing project, we started with a grant, but because I had tenure I could keep working on it after the grant ended. I saw a lot of value in the project; I didn’t just want to work on it because it was grant funded. I wanted to create a platform that could be used by other organizations like NRDs or Conservation Nebraska. I wanted to create something that other people could adapt and adopt. And not being grant funded has given me a lot of flexibility to let the project evolve over time in a way that has been good for the project.

If I was on a 3- or 5-year contract, if I had to be extensively evaluated every year to see if I was going to keep my job or not, I would make different decisions about the types of things that I would work on. These long-term, complicated, difficult-to-fund projects probably wouldn’t get done. You can just invest so much more in long-range things when you don’t have to worry about having a project show results in a year. You can have the ability to think long-term and do important things that need to be done.