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IN THE 1960S, PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY recognized that people had the capacity either to take care of the earth or to destroy it.

And he warned that with that capacity comes power — the power of each generation to become the best in the history of the world, or the last.

Today, faculty members in the UNT Institute of Applied Sciences work to harness that power to ensure to enjoy.

It’s a mission that started more than 50 years ago. Through the water research of J.K.G. Silvey and other biology faculty members, UNT began to build a legacy in environmental science.

Today, the university is a recognized leader in the field, especially in water and aquatic life studies, which are at the center of the environmental research UNT conducts. But the institute takes a holistic view of its environmental discipline.

“The water we drink, the air we breathe and the land we live on are all interdependent,” says Ken Dickson, the institute’s director.


Stream cleaning

So when professors Sam Atkinson and Tom Waller detected high concentrations of atrazine (a restricted-use pesticide that may promote some forms of cancer) in the streams that feed Lake Lewisville near Denton, they went to work. The researchers began to study the surrounding area, or watershed, as well as to monitor the life forms that live in the water.

“The levels of atrazine we found in the feeder streams were alarmingly high,” Atkinson says.

“However, we’ve never found a higher-than-acceptable level in Lake Lewisville. So we still have time to help keep the area’s drinking water resource from being dangerously polluted by this chemical.”

To do that, the researchers had to determine where the chemical was coming from.

Through remote sensing — satellite picturing of the earth — Atkinson and UNT students developed a model of Lake Lewisville’s watershed.

Then they studied the slope of farmland where atrazine might be used, and they analyzed the soil type to determine where the chemical would most likely be present in the highest concentrations.

With the areas of pollution identified, the next step is to eradicate the hazardous runoff.

“We conduct applied research to learn what we need to know to fix a problem or stop one from happening,” says Waller. “Either way, the research always leads to the need for public education.”

In the case of atrazine, the research will allow Waller and Atkinson to educate the community about the problem and what’s causing it. Then they will have to influence the way the pesticide is being used.

One way to do that is to convince the manufacturers and the Environmental Protection Agency to add use-specific restrictions, based on proximity to creeks, rivers and lakes, to the pesticide’s label.


Preventing a problem

Influencing the EPA’s label standards and working with chemical manufacturers through preventative ecotoxicology studies is central to UNT’s environmental research program.

The ecotoxicology research is conducted in a laboratory setting using environmental chemistry and biology to determine the effect of chemicals when they are introduced into an ecosystem.

“The studies are done to ensure the chemicals are as safe as possible,” says biologist Jim Kennedy.

UNT conducts this work on its 40-acre Water Research Field Station, located about five miles from campus. Using more than 80 different “ponds” and “lakes,” faculty members and their students simulate entire aquatic ecosystems to study what happens when a chemical gets into water.

The research examines both what happens to the chemical — how it breaks down and how it spreads — and what happens to the life in the ecosystem.

One chemical at a time is studied for about six months to determine its behavior.

Currently, UNT researchers are studying pyrethroids, a new generation of agricultural pesticides known to be fatal to low-life water creatures.

“The pyrethroids are very toxic, but they have a very short life span, so they should have virtually no effect on humans,” says biologist Tom LaPoint. “However, if they are killing off the lowlife water bugs and plankton, that disrupts the food chain. The research will tell us how people can use the chemical and not disrupt the ecosystem.”

Similar work is conducted at UNT’s new experimental stream system at the city of Denton’s sewage treatment plant.

The streams will be used to study the effect of multiple chemicals on aquatic life. The information will help determine which chemicals, alone and together, are of concern. In addition, the streams will allow the researchers to gauge the effectiveness of the water treatment system.


Protecting the future

These water and land studies will help determine what can be done to protect life today and 'in the near future.

The effects should be seen in our lifetime.

However, some of UNT’s environmental research looks far to the future.

Miguel Acevedo, a computer scientist and biophysicist, has developed a computer model that could save the South American rain forests and other endangered ecosystems.

With grants from the National Science Foundation, he has produced preservation models for forests in Oregon, is working on sites in Venezuela and plans to begin work soon in Puerto Rico.

The computer models, which incorporate projected climate and population changes, show the impact of those changes on the forest ecosystems 500 years from now. The results can help determine ways to use the forests and still protect their long-term life.

Computer modeling can also be applied to other environments, such as lakes and farmland. In fact, researchers are using models in the atrazine study to determine the effects of different rates of pollution.


National impact

The work the researchers conduct is often multidisciplinary, calling on expertise from several research areas.

For example, Ecoplex — Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth’s part in a national initiative called EMPACT (Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Tracking) — combines all of the institute’s research disciplines and tools.

Funded by the EPA, the project is designed to monitor, record and anticipate daily environmental conditions for specific communities.

The information is gathered and posted in real-time on the Internet so that people can access data about the environmental conditions to which they are exposed.

The web site, at, provides details about the day’s ozone levels, heat index and conditions on the area lakes. The site also archives past levels and predicts future levels.

The point is to get the public involved in the environment on a daily basis, says Dickson.

“Generally people say they know about the environment when they do their part to recycle,” he says, “but in order to be involved with and aware of the environment, people have to know the physical world that surrounds them every day.”

Through EMPACT, the researchers hope to educate the public so that this generation, and each of those to come, can strive to be the best on earth instead of the last.


Left: Tom LaPoint, left, and graduate student Bryan Brooks examine the effects of chemicals on aquatic organisms. Right: Jim Kennedy, right, and graduate student Jason Taylor observe mayflies at UNT's Water Research Field Station.


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