“I’ve always said that I have a love-love relationship with water. We’re 70 percent water, it resonates with me,” says Luke McNaboe of Coventry. “I wanted a career path that involves water.”
McNaboe received a bachelor’s in environmental engineering from UConn in 2015. He earned his master’s degree in 2017 through UConn’s Bridge to Doctorate STEM Program, a division of the National Science Foundation. He is currently working on his PhD with Extension Educator Michael Dietz as his advisor.
“The trickiest part of the master’s program was at the very beginning,” McNaboe recalls. “You’re working on a project, and you have a lot of interests, but you have to focus it and develop a testable hypothesis.”
For his master’s thesis, McNaboe investigated the effect of winter road salting on groundwater quality. Specifically, he was interested in the long-term effects of road-salt chloride in groundwater and the influence of sodium on the mobility of naturally occurring radium, a known carcinogen and the parent isotope of radon gas.
“It was a true pleasure to mentor Luke on his master’s work,” Mike Dietz says. “He is incredibly hard working, inquisitive and a pleasure to be around. For a master’s level student to be first author on a published journal article before he even finished his degree is quite amazing.”
McNaboe found that the pervious pavement on campus leaches a lot of salt into the groundwater during winter. However, in the summer months, the rainwater dilutes the salt, improving the quality of the groundwater. The effects of winter salt treatment are currently being debated across the country, but McNaboe and his advisors found high salt concentrations in groundwater under part of the Storrs Campus, a result of the heavy salting of sidewalks and paved surface on campus. They have published their research results in Water, Air and Soil Pollution; Ground Water, and the Journal of Environmental Quality.
The most surprising thing McNaboe learned is how widespread the problem of salt contamination is. The increases in groundwater salinity in the last thirty to fifty years are alarming. “As a society, we need to think about the long term problems caused by salt,” Luke states. “It’s an interesting conversation though, because no one wants to slip and fall either—we also need to consider safety.”
The team found a strong correlation between the amount of road salt in the groundwater and the amount of radium in groundwater. It’s the first time this connection has been found in groundwater. In his PhD research, McNaboe is working to determine if the team’s findings are an anomaly and what is the risk for human exposure. His advisors in this work are Dietz, Gary Robbins, professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Meredith Metcalf, assistant professor the Department of Environmental Earth Science at Eastern Connecticut State University.
“Research sites will be located statewide and include public water systems, private wells and monitoring wells from other groundwater projects,” says McNaboe says. “We are casting the net as widely as we can.”
Sites will be monitored for several years. The study’s statistical significance requires McNaboe to monitor hundreds of sites. He is partnering with the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and seeking to collaborate with researchers in other states.
To private citizens who think there may be a problem with their water, McNaboe recommends that they have it tested. The Department of Public Health and private companies offer the service. Those who have salty wells are invited to email McNaboe at Lukas.Mcnaboe@uconn.edu or call Dietz at (860) 486-2436.
After completing his PhD, McNaboe plans to work in a regulatory or research agency. He is a teaching assistant this fall for an undergraduate course called Natural Resource Measurements and says it’s been fun and meaningful to teach as well.
During his time as an undergraduate at UConn, McNaboe studied abroad for a semester in Chile to develop his Spanish skills. Now he serves as a Spanish tutor for other students. He also volunteers on the Inland Wetlands Agency for the Town of Coventry and is a former DJ at WHUS, UConn’s radio station.
Says McNaboe, “Being able to advance that pool of human knowledge humans through research is very rewarding. But I decided to pursue my PhD because I’m hooked on research.”