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UW-Stevens Point hydrology student wins National Science Foundation award

June 22, 2022
Hannah Lukasik

Hannah Lukasik is passionate about the environment, recycling, clean water, social justice and “all things green.”

“Clean drinking water should be a right, so knowing what is in water is really important,” said the senior majoring in fisheries and water resources-hydrology and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

That passion helped Lukasik win a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award. She will do graduate work in microplastics at the University of Nevada-Reno after completing her UW-Stevens Point studies this summer.

The National Science Foundation award recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.

Lukasik is the first UW-Stevens Point student since 2017 to win this award. She will do a U.S.-Mexico cross-border research project on microplastics in aquatic systems to determine impacts on community and environmental health, working with Research Assistant Professor Monica Arienzo of UN-Reno. 

“I want to help diverse communities have access to clean drinking water,” said Lukasik of Oak Creek, Wis. “This is like achieving my biggest goal right out of college.”

UW-Stevens Point prepared her well with coursework, research and field experience.

Lukasik liked the campus and College of Natural Resources so much when she toured four years ago that she didn’t apply anywhere else.  At orientation, she learned about the Water and Environmental Analysis Laboratory (WEAL), where she has worked the last four years. This CNR facility analyzes water samples from residents, schools and others across the state for a range of potential contaminants, including metals, nutrients and pesticides. Students also train to become water quality professionals by participating in research projects as part of courses in the lab.

She gained tremendous experience in water quality analysis and research and also took on translating WEAL reference materials into Spanish, said Amy Nitka, her WEAL Organic Laboratory supervisor. “What makes Hannah an excellent researcher is that she not only analyzes the samples using advanced instrumentation techniques, but she is also skilled in GIS and statistical analysis, which she used to create the maps, tables, and figures for her evaluation of groundwater flow and lake contaminants.”

Lukasik has been involved in water quality testing for human waste, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, organic compounds, caffeine and artificial sweeteners. “It really opened my eyes to what could be in our drinking water. So much of the country relies on well water,” she said.

In one research project, she tested for artificial sweetener Acesulfame potassium in septic systems and lakes. It is used to predict human impact and the presence of phosphorus, which accelerates growth of algae and weeds that rob water bodies of oxygen needed for healthy aquatic systems. The sweetener was found in all 12 lakes in six counties studied.

“I love all my professors,” Lukasik said. Water chemistry, hydrology and hydrogeology were special interests. The six-week Treehaven field experience, in which nearly all CNR students participate, helped her develop personal and professional skills and solidify lasting friendships.

Several student organizations at UW-Stevens Point provided Lukasik with additional professional and research opportunities. The American Water Resources Association and Students for Wetland Awareness Management and Protection were among student-led groups whose work benefited local wetlands and lakes. The groups monitored the condition of Lake Joanis on campus, determined groundwater flow in a nearby wetland and conducted a baseline assessment of a wetland as it progressed from agricultural land to its native wetland form.

She is interested in working with diverse communities and is looking forward to using her Spanish in graduate school. She will also have an opportunity to work with Indigenous farmers in Kenya this summer as she learns about permaculture and developing sustainable practices, part of a UW-Stevens Point field experience. “I love hearing other people’s stories,” she said.  

Lukasik is grateful for her family, friends and experiences through UW-Stevens Point. “My family really pushed me to be my best self and do my best. My friends here became family and challenged me in healthy ways.”