Big Picture

What’s in your water?

 (Left to right) Kayla Martin-Culet (chemistry ’18), Tyler Swanson (chemistry ’18), and Garrett Taggart (chemistry ’17) and John Sivey, assistant professor of chemistry

John Sivey wants to know what’s in your drinking water.

Backed by a $500,000, five year, CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation, the assistant professor of chemistry in the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics is examining chemical reactions that can result from adding chlorine to drinking water.

Chlorine, used to purify U.S. drinking water since 1902, inactivates bacteria and viruses. But chlorine can also react with natural organic matter, such as broken-down leaves, to form toxic disinfection by-products (DBPs), including compounds known to cause cancer. Sivey and his team of student researchers are on the hunt for DBPs that contain bromine, because this group of DBPs is more toxic than its chlorinated cousins.

Sivey, Kayla Martin-Culet (chemistry ’18), Tyler Swanson (chemistry ’18), and Garrett Taggart (chemistry ’17) analyze samples of drinking water using liquid chromatography with high-resolution mass spectrometry—an instrument which separates and identifies complex mixtures of chemicals, including brominated DBPs.

The CAREER grant is the NSF’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty members.

This project also includes an educational outreach program in which sixth grade math students explore how linear functions are essential to careers in science and engineering.