Researching wastewater to learn about COVID

A research team comprising students and faculty from three New York City colleges is researching Covid-19 in wastewater in the city and a nearby county. The idea came from Monica Trujillo (middle center), a microbiologist at Queensborough Community College. (Photo: Queens College)

A research project studying the coronavirus in wastewater in New York City to better understand the virus, including how it spreads and mutates, had its start when COVID-19 brought a class project at Queensborough Community College (QCC) to a halt.

Prior to the pandemic, QCC associate professor of biology Monica Trujillo was teaching a microbiology class, which included a project where students sampled water and soil from Newtown Creek, a 3.5-mile long polluted tributary of the East River between Queens and Brooklyn. When the virus prompted the college to shift classes online, the hands-on research opportunity vanished.

But Trujillo saw another opportunity, and required her students to read new research papers on COVID. Her goal was to use the papers to teach microbiology.

One of the papers Trujillo read was an initial study on the virus that came from the Netherlands. It was based on research that found the coronavirus in wastewater. In fact, reseachers were able to detect the presence of the virus a week before the first clinical case was diagnosed, which alerted officials that there were infected people who were not showing symptoms.

Trujillo saw the potential to not only use the virus to teach students, but also to do a broader public good.

“I thought that seems like a very good way for cities to be able to know the state of the population without having to do in-person testing,” Trujillo said.

Testing in NYC

Trujillo wanted to test her idea in New York, but it’s not so easy to access wastewater, which requires certain security permits. Also, it’s not easy to have the right research conditions to work with wastewater.

Community colleges typically don’t offer or participate in research, though a growing number of two-year colleges are using research projects as contextual learning opportunities. Since they are not research-focused, two-year colleges don’t typically have the facilities for the type of labs required for such research. So Trujillo contacted a friend at Queens College, a four-year institution that also is part of the City University of New York system. She asked John Dennehy, who studies virus ecology and evolution, what he thought about the idea. He liked it but noted it would be difficult to get the water.

“I said we just have to try,” Trujillo recalled, and they did.

Trujillo plugged into her network with the Newtown Creek Alliance, a nonprofit that is helping to remediate the creek. One of its members connected her with a high-level official in the city’s department of environmental protection, who responded promptly. The team, which also included researchers from the New School, was permitted to collect one liter of wastewater from each of the city’s 14 wastewater treatment facilities.

Beginning in May, Trujillo collected raw samples weekly and took them to Queens College. Once the research team was properly trained, it started examining the water for COVID, which they found.

“If you have a good network, you can achieve things that are difficult to image,” Trujillo said.

Detecting the undetected

The team also received approval to research wastewater in nearby Westchester County, where for more than two months it collected a liter of wastewater weekly from seven treatment plants. County officials are interested in evidence of varying infection rates among different communities.

“We wanted to isolate enough RNA from each of these samples, and then sequence it to see if we could see any difference in the sequencing,” Trujillo said.

There are plenty of studies on the virus’ mutations, but most are done by using samples from people who are sick. They do not include asymptomatic infected individuals who are not tested and not included in the research, she said. The randomly collected wastewater does include samples from those individuals.

Training future scientists

Now that the fall semester has started, Trujillo is again teaching remote classes but continues to volunteer with the ongoing research. Although the project is currently only for students at Queens College and the New School, when the work slows down the team plans to look into grants that will fund training for students to become lab technicians, which would include QCC students.

Trujillo, who is 60, said she realizes the potential effect of the project, which perhaps is the one that will have the largest impact of her career. And she hopes that her courses and related research will inspire future scientists.

“I will use it in my teaching this semester, to make students excited about biology. They are the next ones,” she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.