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Science project ‘taps’ into faculty-student research

CJ Hartwell
Reena DePaolo, assistant director of the AC2 Program, was one of 29 participants in a taste test designed by
Professor Shaiful Chowdhury and a group of students to determine if there is a noticeable difference in flavor
between tap and bottled water. Photo by Lee Conell

Bottled water may have a reputation for purity, but Professor Shafiul Chowdhury (Geology) and four students are working to promote campus tap water as the truly clean choice.

"Bottled water is very detrimental to our society," Chowdhury said, citing the high cost of producing the bottle (which will often end up in a landfill), shipping the bottle and then refrigerating its contents. What’s more, no health or nutritional benefits have been found from drinking bottled water instead of tap, he added.

This summer, Chowdhury and students Carimaxy Benitez ’10 (Undeclared), Rosmery Holguin ’08 (Secondary Education, Math), Jason Simmons ’08 (Environmental Geochemical Science) and Laura Waterbury ’09 (Biology) designed an experiment to test the safety of tap water from drinking fountains on campus and compare the taste of bottled and tap water to see if any real differences could be discerned.

First, they analyzed water samples from campus fountains for some common water quality parameters and tested the water for contaminants and bacteria. They found that the fountain water was safe and acceptable by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

Next, they conducted blind taste tests, asking participants to drink 10 separate samples of water and try to determine whether the sample was tap water or bottled water. They found that for the most part participants couldn’t tell the difference between tap and bottled water. On average, 42 percent of participants’ responses to the taste test were incorrect.

"Hopefully, these results will encourage more people to drink tap water," Chowdhury said.

In addition to promoting fountain water as the environmentally friendly choice, Chowdhury and the student researchers benefited from their collaboration.

"I get hands-on experience with some of the instruments," said Simmons, who is participating in the project as part of his senior research project. "We use some pretty advanced tools to analyze the water and the data."

Just as the students enjoyed collaborating with an experienced faculty member, Chowdhury appreciated the energy the students brought.

"Seeing the students come up with ideas for the project, that’s a special pleasure that I get," Chowdhury said.