Student’s Philanthropy Leads to NSF Fellowship in Mercury Research

May 4, 2015

Jacqueline Gerson, a graduate student in environmental engineering science, has earned a highly competitive graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation. The award will fund her research on mercury contamination from artisanal gold mining for the next three years. Gerson’s work is inspired by time spent in Senegal, where she spent two and a half years serving as an environment and health volunteer with the Peace Corps. Artisanal gold mining is a common practice in some developing countries, including Senegal. Because of its value, gold is highly sought after. When it is uncovered, it is processed using mercury, a toxic element that can cause neurological problems. The mercury binds itself to the gold, allowing them to separate the gold and mercury from the rock and dirt that encases it. Then, often in the same small huts that their families reside in, they burn off the toxic mercury, leaving pure gold. It creates extremely dangerous levels of mercury in the air they breathe and contributes to a global health problem. This activity is the single greatest source of mercury in the atmosphere worldwide. While in Senegal, Gerson witnessed artisanal gold mining first-hand. She says, “I had friends in the Peace Corps living where the mining was taking place — one so close that she had to relocate due to health concerns. When I went to see it for myself, I was shocked by conditions. This is a situation where environmental and health dangers truly intersect. It became clear to me that this is what the focus of my graduate work should be. I sought out Professor Charley Driscoll because of his mercury research and applied to Syracuse University.” Gerson’s research will focus on the effects of mercury on the environment in close proximity to the mining in Senegal. She wants to understand what is happening in the country’s streams and soils, and by proxy, the health of the villagers. By being present in the environment, mercury finds its way into the food chain through bioaccumulation. In Senegal, the population consumes a lot of fish, so if it's in the water, it's also in the food supply. Contamination in the environment has been largely unexplored in Africa, and never in Senegal. Gerson hopes her research at Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science adds to the world’s pool of knowledge on mercury and aids in the strategies the UN intends to implement to address artisanal gold mining. She says, “I've always been interested in chemistry and applied science research. As an avid hiker and camper, I’m also passionate about preserving the environment. My mission is to use science to help protect the environmental systems that I love. I’m also motivated by the fact that my work can be used to help people in developing countries like Senegal. It’s an extension of the work I did as a Peace Corps volunteer.”