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Environmental Studies Students Map Cancer in the Community

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Michael Andranovich ‘16C and Joseph Costa ‘17C, both undergraduates in the environmental studies program, are working to map the correlation between the presence of heavy metals in water samples and incidents of prostate cancer on Long Island. They began the project when both took Laura Schramm, Ph.D.,’s Environmental Chemistry course in fall 2015 and are continuing their research under her supervision.

“Michael and Joe are the driving force behind this important project and I have the privilege to serve as their advisor,” said Schramm, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and Associate Dean for St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This is a great example of problem-based learning. The project allowed Joe and Mike to apply what they’ve learned in various courses in their Environmental Studies program to evaluate a major concern in environmental science: contamination of water.”

Andranovich and Costa compared historical data maps of prostate cancer diagnoses on Long Island from 2005-2009 with a map of Superfund sites in the same area. They chose 12 sites from which to collect water samples, including state parks, golf courses, and cemeteries. Of those 12 sites, four yielded significant data and the most provocative results came from Bethpage State Park. Andranovich and Costa, under Schramm’s guidance, tested the water samples from Bethpage for heavy metals and found significant contamination. They then treated prostate cancer cells in Schramm’s research lab with the sampled water and found that the water samples containing heavy metals significantly increased the cancer cell growth.  Abnormal cell growth is a hallmark of a variety of cancers.

“We collected samples from places where people play and from as close as 12 feet to an elementary school,” said Costa. “There is a real human element to these results.”

The students presented a poster summarizing their findings on Student Research Day, and hope to continue to collect enough data to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal. Next year, Andranovich, who has completed internships with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Mystic Aquarium, will continue his commitment to service by joining AmeriCorps. Both students are sustainability coordinators for the campus and work with SJU’s organic garden and the campus-wide composting program, and both hope to continue their environmental research. “This project is a way for us to figure out what we want to do after graduation,” said Costa. “Going out and pulling samples and bringing them back to the lab for testing could be my life in two years.”

“I think we both want to be out and about and live our jobs,” said Andranovich. “Becoming a field biologist would be a great way to do that.”

Said Dianella Howarth, Ph.D., Environmental Studies Program Director and Professor of Biology: “This project is a fantastic example the interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies, melding toxicology with mapping of human disease incidents. Dr. Schramm, Andranovich, and Costa have worked very hard and have produced a project for which we are very proud!”