Thirty Years on the Cutting Edge of University of Nebraska Research

By: Jesse Starita

Author’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the Summer 2020 Nebraska Water Current, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Water Sciences Laboratory.


At its purest form, water is two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen. But water craves other elements and particles, which also are deeply attracted to water. Sometimes these chemical marriages are benign or beneficial, other times they can be problematic, even detrimental.

For 30 years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Water Sciences Laboratory (WSL) has sussed out these chemical alliances – all the while establishing itself as one of the country’s premiere laboratories in answering the question of “what’s in the water?”

The lab was founded under the directorship of Dr. Roy Spalding in 1990 (see interview on p. 6), with funding from the Nebraska Research Initiative. This initiative was established by the Nebraska Legislature to promote research in critical areas. Since then, the 6,000 square-foot East Campus lab has become a university-designated “core research facility” owing to its work with researchers and scientists across disciplines, colleges and campuses.

WSL scientists deliver technical services and expertise through $3 million worth of cutting-edge instruments, delivering water analyses to a range of clients. That notion of “expertise” is the critical feature, said Dr. Chittaranjan Ray, who directs the University of Nebraska Water Center, of which the WSL is an indispensable part.

While the instruments – mass spectrometers, gas or liquid chromatography and other machines – run the samples, it’s the design of the experiments, the creation of the processes that develop the samples, and the analysis of findings that differentiate this lab from others, Ray said.

“The human brain is more important than the machinery,” Ray said. “The real difficulty is coming up with the methods of separating the samples and compounds; it’s the design of the experiment, each of which is unique. In our lab, the scientists are also training students in the methodologies. And it’s a beautiful collaboration with faculty and students that also builds the university’s research capacity and portfolio.”

“Of the 54 U.S. water centers,” Ray stated, “just 14 have water sciences labs.” “Nebraska’s is one of the biggest and best because of the chemists, interns, students and number of collaborators across so many disciplines.”

WSL Director of Services Dan Snow has been affiliated since the beginning, when he was a geochemistry doctoral candidate. Snow’s research contributed field and laboratory methods to the lab’s first big project, the Management Systems Evaluation Area (MSEA).

The MSEA analyzed thousands of groundwater samples from areas near Shelton – in the heart of the Platte River valley – to understand how different irrigation practices affected groundwater quality.

Dozens of scientific papers followed. Many of these studies showed that water-conserving irrigation practices not only saved water, Snow said, but also improved groundwater quality without negatively affecting crop yields.

These and other projects exemplified what Snow calls applied science – looking for ways to control or minimize negative impacts for future water users. Three decades ago, the lab was testing mostly for the herbicide atrazine and for nitrates. Since then, instruments have become more sensitive and can test for myriad other contaminants at far smaller concentrations. As a result, today’s lab offers over 140 analytical methods that allow its scientists to exploit a fuller range of the instruments’ capabilities.

Many of these studies are done for state agencies, like Nebraska’s Natural Resource Districts (NRDs), who are charged with managing Nebraska’s groundwater. “NRDs want to know where to best spend their resources,” Snow said, “so identifying the source of problems helps to prioritize.”

Snow and Ray said the lab contributes knowledge to the field of “emerging contaminants,” which include algal toxins, explosives, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, polyfluoroalkyl substances, estrogens, antibiotics and illegal drugs. Lab scientists have also developed protocols to analyze for contaminants in foods and food components.

More recently the lab began testing for neonicotinoids. Chemically similar to nicotine, these insecticides have controversial environmental impacts – particularly to the health of honeybees – and their use has grown considerably over the past several decades. With neonicotinoid residues entering surface and groundwater across the country, the lab teamed with UNL Water Quality Engineer Dr. Tiffany Messer to investigate where they are found, their potential impacts and what can be done to minimize these impacts. The laboratory has recently developed methods to measure these chemicals at very low concentrations in water and plant tissue samples (See related article on p. 11).

While the lab’s core research funding originates from the Nebraska Research Initiative, this amount has decreased over time. This makes revenue from national grants like Messer’s project even more significant. Additionally, NU colleges and institutes recently added internal support to facilities like the WSL that benefit from student training and researcher access (see student profiles on pp. 14-15). In the decades to come, these internal sources will continue to play a role, but grants and external revenue – built on the lab’s reputation as a state-of-the-art analytical and training laboratory – will play exceedingly larger roles.

Thirty years in, the WSL is positioned for success in myriad ways: commercially, through a client matrix including local agencies, federal funders, state support, academia and private corporations; technically, via increasingly sophisticated instrumentation; and organizationally, through a thriving student internship program and new staff like Dr. Saptashati (Tania) Biswas, whose acumen as lab manager helped grow the lab’s number of samples from 4,000 in 2015 to 11,000 in 2019.

Snow, a leader and observer of this lengthy transformation, has enjoyed being a witness to water’s many chemical marriages.

“I get to dabble in a lot more interesting things than if I were in just one department. It’s enjoyable to meet and work with so many different viewpoints over water.”