John Hoefler '20

Mercury Analysis of Church Pond, Western Adirondacks

Deborah Dudley

If you were to ask John Hoefler ’20 to describe the research equipment he used to administer his study of mercury levels in local Adirondack waterways, among the chemistry appliances, glass plates, microscopes, and refrigeration units in the Johnson Hall of Science, Hoefler would also list sunscreen, life jacket, kayak, paddle, fishing pole, and bait.

“This is great. I’m doing what I might be doing anyway, just fishing,” says the chemistry major from Watertown, New York. “And, I’m actually doing something with it other than just the sport.”

Hoefler’s study included collecting small samples in and around Church Pond in the Western Adirondacks and is a critical factor for better understanding the effects levels of mercury in local waterways have on human health. His research was conducted as part of the inaugural batch of Saints Start Challenge Grants funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support of St. Lawrence’s Sophomore Journeys program.

Hoefler teamed up with Associate Professor of Chemistry Matthew Skeels to create a research framework for the study.

“I came to him with some very poorly cobbled together ideas, and just said, ‘I like the environment and chemistry,’” Hoefler admits. He says Skeels helped him convert those interests into a project that was both feasible and one that Skeels would be able to support.

“On field days, I’m going down and collecting fish, insects, sediment, shells like mollusks, and plant samples, as well as anything else I just come across,” says Hoefler, who has minimized the sample size to lower the impact to the area. “I’m taking little samples, just little 5-millimeter chunks. There’s been some literature that says it is just as accurate as the traditional method of taking the whole fish and using the fillet.”

Once back in the lab, the samples are freeze-dried, a process which takes 16 to 24 hours. Then they’re run through a mercury analyzer. 

“Mercury’s an incredibly dangerous pollutant,” says Hoefler. “It has a lot of negative effects on the human body and human health.” Hoefler feels it is important to highlight the risks to inform smart and effective environmental protections and policies that protect public health.

Hoefler credits the Saints Start Challenge Grant for making the project possible because of its flexibility. “It’s really open-ended,” he says. “I purchased the kayak through it, fishing supplies, the dermal punch I use to sample the fish, and the stipend.” Hoefler emphasizes, “I couldn’t do this without the ability to financially support myself for these two months.”

Not only will Hoefler’s research inform the larger discussion of local environmental issues, but he also feels it has resulted in personal growth as well.

“I’m sort of doing what I would like to do for a career,” he says, “working in the field, working in the lab, and working with chemistry. The environment has always been my focus of interest, and this is a way to apply the chemical principles that I’ve learned to that.”