In our latest Featured Resarcher, Prof. Catherine Coxon of Trinity College is in conversation with Dr Anthea Lacchia of UCD.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on various groundwater projects: I am supervising PhD student Damien Mooney who is researching veterinary pharmaceuticals in groundwater, and I’m also co-supervisor on Luka Vucinic’s PhD project on impact of domestic wastewater treatment systems on karst springs. I also have an ongoing research interest in groundwater pollution by nitrate, including a recently completed project on nitrate leaching in tillage and grassland catchments in association with the Teagasc Agricultural Catchments Programme, and work on identifying nitrate sources in some Irish group water scheme supplies. High levels of nitrate in drinking water supplies can cause human health problems, while nitrate passing through aquifers to surface waters can contribute to ecological problems. I’m also involved in an EPA-funded project on groundwater-dependent terrestrial ecosystems, which involves studying groundwater-fed wetlands including fens, bogs and turloughs – I have a particular interest in nitrogen and phosphorus inputs from groundwater into these wetlands and the relevance of this to their ecological condition.
What are some research questions you are currently thinking about?
One of my main current interests is the area of emerging organic contaminants in groundwater. We are using a lot of organic chemicals (pharmaceutical and personal care products) and those can ultimately get into waters (surface and groundwaters). Yet in many cases there are no drinking water standards, perhaps because the toxicological work to set drinking water standards for them hasn’t been done yet, so it’s not fully clear what the concerns are. This has been generally an area of growth in groundwater research over the last ten years and it’s an area I have been working on recently, looking at pesticides and veterinary drugs.
Where in Ireland do you do fieldwork?
Much of my fieldwork in recent times has been on projects to do with agriculture and groundwater quality, mostly working in eastern and southern Ireland, often with Teagasc researchers. This involves field investigations and water quality monitoring either on Teagasc farms or in catchments where Teagasc are working in partnership with private farmers. I actually get to do very little fieldwork these days – unfortunately I seem to do much more work at the computer and dispatching students out to do fieldwork and visiting them to see how they’re getting on with it! Having said that, I have had quite a long history of doing fieldwork in the west of Ireland and still try to do some work there. I worked on turloughs and springs in the western Irish karst limestone lowlands (in eastern Mayo, eastern Galway and Clare), initially as a karst geomorphologist and hydrologist, and subsequently on water quality. Some of the karst springs on which I’ve worked in the past are now being studied by Luka Vucinic, examining domestic wastewater impacts on karst springs, and some have been sampled by Damien Mooney for veterinary drugs, as part of their iCRAG-funded doctoral research .
Is agricultural groundwater pollution a big issue in Ireland?
Agricultural impact on groundwater is a big issue in Ireland, but if we were to ask how we compare with other countries, in many ways the situation is not as bad, in terms of the nitrate for example. To some extent, we have so much rain that it dilutes the nitrate that’s leaching, so it’s not necessarily to do with just intensity of agricultural practices, it’s also to do with the climate and the hydrogeology: here in Ireland, where we have old, hard fractured bedrock, things move more rapidly than they do through something like the Cretaceous chalk. So contaminants might get into the aquifers more easily, particularly where the protective cover of glacial deposits is thin and permeable, or where we have sinking streams in karst areas, but they can also get flushed out more quickly. The timescale of groundwater contamination is sometimes not as prolonged in Ireland as it might be in some international situations. However, there is no room for complacency. Our karst and fractured aquifers are very vulnerable to faecal microbial pollution. Also, in some situations, nutrients moving through aquifers contribute to eutrophication problems in rivers, lakes and estuaries, and further investigations are needed on agrochemicals including pesticides and pharmaceuticals.
What sparked your interest in geology?
I studied geography as my primary degree. I had done some geology along the way because I did geography through science, and within geography I was doing primarily physical geography, geomorphology, and hydrology, and I was working with Dr David Drew who supervised both my undergraduate dissertation and my PhD. David Drew is an eminent karst hydrogeologist and got me into that area. More specifically, as an undergraduate over the course of two summers I had a job doing fieldwork for him and the Office of Public Works, and it was in an area in southeast Mayo where there are turloughs and where the Cong Canal is (this canal joins Lough Mask and Lough Corrib and sinks underground through its bed into the limestone). I really enjoyed that experience and it gave me the interest to go on and study that further, so I went on to do a PhD in turloughs but also just generally got interested in groundwater.
Can we talk a little about the interaction between art and science? I think you spoke in the past about research on karst features in Greek myth.
It’s not something I have thought about extensively, but coming from a family background where we are all engaged in the arts I am interested in the interaction between art and science. I think it’s a fascinating area, for example karst features cropping up in ancient classical literature, an interest I share with my classicist sister-in-law Catherine Connors who has looked at the karstic basis for ancient Greek and Roman myths of the Underworld. Those sort of linkages can be important because sometimes when we look at science we are only considering the very applied and practical side, which is very much what I work on in terms of water quality, but there can also be a cultural aspect to science that we don’t always follow through on.
What is the aspect of your work you enjoy doing the most?
Fieldwork! But having said that, that’s what I get to do the least of these days. I enjoy teaching a lot as well and putting the two together through field teaching.
And the least?
Financial administration, managing research grants and reporting - that kind of thing!
When are you most productive?
I am a middle of the day person, not really an early morning or a late-night person.
Do you have any tips for staying productive in research?
What has been nice is managing to get away to an international conference to focus on research and talk to other researchers. It can recharge the batteries and give further inspiration.
I know you have been involved in gender equality initiatives, for instance helping Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences apply and gain the Athena Swan Bronze award. What are the main challenges you think women face today in academia and do you have any advice for early career female researchers?
My own experience would be that the issues are not primarily gender issues. I know that in Earth Science, female scientists are rather underrepresented, but on the whole certainly in my personal experience I don’t think gender per se has been an issue, I think what has been a challenge is the whole issue of being a parent and juggling work and family, which doesn’t exclusively have to be a female issue (though often it may come down to that). I found that, when I was a female scientist and I didn’t have children, I didn’t perceive there were any obstacles or equality issues that I was needing to deal with, so any issues or challenges I might have encountered would be more as a working parent than as a female. One thing that does apply more to females is that females are not always as good at pushing themselves forward and I would have been guilty of that too, so one bit of advice is to be more confident in what you are capable of doing.
Why do you think public engagement is important?
I think public engagement is important and it’s very important to be reaching out at primary and secondary level as well as to the public. For most of my career, I have been engaging with farmers and local communities on water quality issues. I enjoy participating in meetings in community halls with local committees and people living in the area about water quality. When you are doing research in an area, meeting with the local community is very important. Equally, engaging the younger generation is important too. For example, the European Researchers Night we demonstrated a groundwater model (it is a large model with layers of sand stuck in between Perspex sheets) - that would have included engaging with a range of school children as well.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
One hobby I have is hillwalking and I used to have an annual trip abroad hillwalking, though I have not managed to find the time in recent years. I do walk in the Dublin Mountains when I have some spare time - Kilmashogue and Ticknock Mountains for example.
Do you envision your research as making a difference in the world and how?
Improving water quality and safeguarding the environment while maintaining food production is a critical issue. Much of my research on groundwater quality feeds into this, not just in reaching a better understanding of where and why water pollution occurs, but also in trying to arrive at ways of minimising such problems. For example, some of my work with Teagasc and with previous research students on nitrate leaching in tillage areas has demonstrated the importance of maintaining a winter green cover following harvest of spring cereals, and this has fed through to national policy and legislation. Also, talking to local communities and landowners about water quality is very important for mutual understanding and finding realistic solutions. I hope that our current iCRAG research on emerging organic contaminants will lead to greater understanding of this groundwater quality issue, and to ways of minimising pollution risk.