Emma Cameron is only in her second year of college, but she’s already doing research that could someday give local governments and law enforcement authorities the ability to determine the scope of drug abuse in their jurisdictions by testing wastewater.
Cameron, a chemistry major at Virginia Military Institute, has lived in Alaska, where she saw the opioid crisis firsthand—but she never imagined she’d be able to help combat drug abuse.
“I’m really lucky to have such a hands-on experience,” she noted. “I’m only 18 years old … and I’m lucky enough to be able to have that hands-on experience where I can work directly with the community and even bigger with the world on such a large-scale problem.”
Cameron works under the direction of Shannon Quevedo, Ph.D., an analytical chemist.
“The content of wastewater is a big concern for city and county governments that filter wastewater and provide drinking water,” she said. “All sorts of substances end up in our wastewater. … Often people dispose of their leftover prescription medications by flushing them down the toilet, and they end up in the wastewater.”
Because the molecules of these chemicals are so small, municipal filtration systems cannot remove them—but in this problem, Quevedo has found an opportunity.
Quevedo pairs her research with teaching at VMI, a public institution in the mountains of Virginia. Despite its size—the student body only numbers about 1,500—VMI has long been known for its strength in the sciences and commitment to undergraduate research.
Quevedo has recruited two students— Cameron and Bella Bruzonic, both members of the Class of 2025—to work alongside her.
The project not only helps students learn but also dovetails with VMI’s emphasis on citizenship, personal honor, and public service. Just over half of the school’s graduates commission into the military, and many others work for companies and nonprofits advancing the public good.
“One of the greatest things about being at VMI is that students like [Emma are] civically minded. They’re interested in engaging with governments about these issues,” said Quevedo.
Both Cameron and Bruzonic utilized a base made of hydrogels, a clear gelatin-like substance made of chemicals and water.
In her research, Cameron is seeking to detect cocaine in wastewater. Instead of testing cocaine, she used benzoylecgonine, a similar but legal substance.
“In areas with limited resources, this program would help us detect cocaine and realize how large or to what extent the [drug abuse] epidemic is,” she stated.
“I’ve had the experience of being able to actually contribute to a solution toward possibly even solving the opioid epidemic, or at least combating it as much as possible,” Cameron commented.
Bruzonic chose to test sulfates, a common pollutant from industrial waste.
Once the test substances were added to the hydrogels, the students checked the Petri dishes every hour for signs of a chemical change. “Some results were seen in 24 to 48 hours,” reported Cameron. “We have allowed the Petri dishes to sit for two months now, and we see good results.”
For her part, Cameron has a succinct statement about why she’s glad she’s chosen VMI and undergraduate research: “I believe VMI is helping me make a change.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was posted on richmond.com.
Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content
The director of digital content is responsible for creating original video and multimedia materials, as well as developing and editing web and digital content. The director is responsible for platform coordination and troubleshooting, to include the VMI Alumni Agencies’ primary websites, digital newsletter and other digital platforms.
Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist
The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.