A Wheaton education can take one in unexpected directions. Just ask Rebecca Harvey ’08.
When Harvey arrived at Wheaton as a freshman, she was planning to pursue a career in dentistry. Today she is an ecological manager at the Squam Lakes Association in New Hampshire, where she monitors water quality, researches environmental issues and leads educational outreach for the nonprofit conservation group.
Growing up in southern Maine, Harvey had never considered such a career, although she had volunteered for an animal refuge and enjoyed her AP chemistry class. An internship helped change her mind.
Wheaton had awarded her a Trustee Scholarship, which includes a stipend to pay for a summer experience. During Harvey’s sophomore year, biology professor Barbara Brennessel suggested to her that she use it to intern at the Cape Cod National Seashore, where Brennessel has done research.
Harvey spent the summer working out of a lab in North Truro, Mass., monitoring water quality, managing invasive plants and restoring wetlands, and she found it all fascinating.
“I came back to Wheaton,” she recalled, “and all my friends said, ‘So, Red [her nickname], do you think you’ll go back to the seashore?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t think so; it has nothing to do with dentistry.’ ”
But as the weeks went by, she kept thinking back to how much she loved the work she had done in North Truro and the way it had engaged her. The experience helped the chemistry major realize her interest in environmental science.
Harvey spent her junior year immersed in the subject, and the following summer she received a Wheaton Fellowship to work with chemistry professor Jani Benoit on a study of mercury levels in Boston Harbor. Their research, which eventually was published in the prestigious journal Environmental Science & Technology, gave Harvey a new focus.
“It really opened my eyes to the world of environmental chemistry,” she said. “I’d always been interested in chemistry, but I didn’t really see it until I had that experience with applying it.”
Benoit recalls that Harvey was “a pleasure to supervise,” describing her as both a quick study and a self-directed learner.
“I was particularly impressed by her ability to troubleshoot problems as they arose and her fearlessness in taking on new procedures,” said Benoit.
As a Wheaton senior, Harvey decided she would go on to graduate school. She chose a unique new master’s program in environmental science and policy created by Plymouth State University in collaboration with the Squam Lakes Association. It allowed her to gain hands-on experience in ecological management working for the association, while doing her classroom work.
When she needed a topic for her master’s thesis, she turned to her Wheaton experience. She decided on a topic she had first learned about during her senior seminar with Professor Laura Muller: emerging contaminants.
Scientists are only beginning to explore the prevalence and impacts of “emerging contaminants,” which include pollutants like pharmaceuticals and personal care products, or PPCPs. Harvey worked with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to develop a new method of detecting and measuring PPCPs in the Squam Lakes and other areas of the Granite State.
Her innovation involved using safer and “greener” compounds to detect and measure PPCPs in lakes, rivers and wastewater treatment facilities. Harvey’s approach was not only more environmentally friendly, it was also less expensive, which made it more feasible for state agencies and other laboratories to conduct testing.
She has already presented her research at a number of academic conferences, and going forward she hopes to raise awareness about the proper disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products. If nothing else, she hopes people will heed one basic piece of advice: Old drugs should be thrown away in the trash, not flushed down the toilet as many people do.