Montana State University

MSU grad's research takes him to nation's capital

May 15, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Much of David Steppler's research into groundwater pollution was conducted inside this oxygen-free tent, meant to mimic conditions deep underground. Photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Bozeman - A recent Montana State University graduate's innovative research into a treatment for groundwater contaminants was presented on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in late April.

David Steppler's project was one of only 75 chosen nationwide by the Council on Undergraduate Research for the honor. The council represents more than 900 colleges and universities.

In addition to presenting his research, Steppler and his research adviser, professor Robin Gerlach, also brought a message about the importance of undergraduate research to the offices of Montana Senators Conrad Burns and Max Baucus.

"I wasn't there to ask them for money," said Steppler, who graduated this spring with a degree in biochemistry. "I just wanted to show them what's going on at MSU; what our school has for undergrad research and that we're actually doing research that is useful."

More than 1,200 students are currently involved in various undergraduate research programs at MSU.

For two years, Steppler has studied the complexities of using powdered iron to treat groundwater polluted with the explosive 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), the corrosion inhibitors chromate and dichromate (hexavalent chromium) and the chlorinated solvent, carbon-tetrachloride. He's done his work at MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering.

When iron powder corrodes in water it donates an electron that can transform the contaminants into less dangerous substances.
"The Department of Defense wants TNT cleaned up from places like bombing ranges," Steppler said. "It can cause liver and spleen problems and is a possible carcinogen."

Hexavalent chromium was the pollutant at the center of the movie "Erin Brockovich." Carbon-tetrachloride, once used in dry cleaning, is a suspected carcinogen.

Buried porous walls of powdered or particulate iron have been placed in the path of contaminated groundwater for a little more than a decade. The walls can immobilize contaminants so that they no longer move with the flowing groundwater or change them into substances Steppler calls "the lesser of two evils."

TNT is changed into triaminotoluene (TAT), hexavalent chromium into chromium(III), and carbon-tetrachloride to chloroform and possibly other - mostly less toxic - products.

Steppler's research is unusual in that he has studied how effective iron is when confronted with a mix of these chemicals or with naturally occurring organic matter, both situations often found in contaminated environments.

"It's big news because everyone's been treating them as individual contaminants, when often they're mixed," Steppler said.

The difference is significant: TNT mixed with hexavalent chromium can take more than 30 times longer to be reduced to its less dangerous form than when it is alone.

Because Steppler is examining different mixtures of chemicals and organic matter and at different concentrations, the resulting analysis has been enormous.

"It gets intense," he said. "But it's so interesting. Everyday, I look at it and see something I haven't seen before."

He plans to publish his findings in a paper that will be one of the first ever published on mixed contaminants in the field.

Born and raised on his parents' ranch in Lambert, Steppler had been thinking about going into optometry as a way to find work in eastern Montana.

But after his trip to D.C., he's not so sure. A representative from the National Science Foundation visited him during his Capitol Hill presentation and got him thinking about what might be possible with a Ph.D.

Gerlach would love to see him pursue a graduate degree.

"David is awesome. He is the most well rounded of the roughly 20 undergraduate students that have gone through my lab in the past nine or so years," Gerlach said. "The research that he completed with me could already be a good part of a graduate thesis. With his skills and qualifications, he will be able to get into almost any graduate program he wants to."

Steppler is going to take some time to think about it. He's getting married this summer and plans to "take a year off" while his fiancée finishes her degree.

"It was an exciting atmosphere (in D.C.)," he said. "I'm not saying I'm going to graduate school, but I'm definitely on the fence now."

Contact: Robin Gerlach, Center for Biofilm Engineering, (406) 994-1840 or robin_g@erc.montana.edu; David Steppler, (406) 489-1103 or da_steps@hotmail.com.