Unity College faculty earns $35,000 grant to monitor Lake Winnecook water quality using drones

The grant acquired by Unity College to study the eutrophication of Lake Winnecook, also known as Unity Pond, funds two full-time student positions throughout the summer. (contributed photo)

There are a number of ways to monitor the changes in a lake’s quality of water, such as gathering and testing water samples, using a Secchi disk to measure visibility, and even satellite data gathered over the course of several years. However, when Dr. James Killarney, Assistant Professor of Environmental Chemistry, saw an opportunity to apply for a Maine Space Grant Consortium Faculty Seed Research Grant, he began thinking of new ways to study the eutrophication of Lake Winnecook, also known as Unity Pond. Eutrophication, which is usually caused by runoff from the land, is when the body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients due to an abundance of plant life and algae.

The Maine Space Grant Consortium is part of a network funded by NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, also known as Space Grant.

“One of the NASA mission directorates was related to monitoring global environmental change with respect to water quality” said Dr. Killarney. “I had a conversation about the grant with Kevin Spigel, Professor of Geoscience, and because of some drone work he had recently started, he brought up we should do something with them. From there, the idea of using aerial imagery at a local scale to perform water quality analysis started to develop.”

Drs. Killarney and Spigel then reached out to Dr. Janis Balda, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, to take the lead on the business development piece of the grant, and Dr. Kathleen Dunckel, Associate Professor of Forest Resources and Geographical Information Systems, who can overlay the images taken using GIS.

The grant also funds two full-time student positions throughout the summer. “Students get to go along for this ride,” said Dr. Killarney. “They’re going to see this process of science at a federally funded level, and they’re going to be able to decide if this is something they want to do with their life.”

“I want to congratulate Drs. Killarney, Spigel, Balda, and Dunckel on being awarded this grant,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “Not only is it great to see our faculty engaged in research that will benefit the residents here in Unity, but this grant will also offer our students an invaluable experience conducting research with professionals. This is the embodiment of a Unity College education, getting hands-on experience in the field, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of this research.”

The Friends of Lake Winnecook also helped in funding the research, as they continue to work closely with the college to monitor the lake’s water quality.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Brian Levesque, the President of the Friends of Lake Winnecook. “It’s going to be huge in terms of monitoring and testing, and we think it’s going to be a huge step in the ongoing efforts to clean up the lake. Our end goal is to get Lake Winnecook off the impaired list of lakes in the state, and continue to work with Unity College and other agencies in a collaborative effort to do that.”

While the bulk of the research will be conducted throughout the summer, work with this grant is already underway and will be included in portions of the curriculum for the upcoming Fall semester.


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