Amy Wiersma has long dreamed of an environmentally focused career.
Now she’s getting to make that dream a reality. Wiersma, a PhD student in the Environmental Chemistry and Technology Program in civil and environmental engineering, has worked for years with a Wisconsin community to understand how radium is affecting its water supply.
Wiersma is a first-generation college student in CEE associate professor Matthew Ginder-Vogel’s research group. Her research has focused on radium—a naturally occurring radioactive metal that can prove deadly if ingested regularly over long periods. In March 2023, she accepted a position with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey as a scientist specializing in groundwater resources.
It’s the culmination of a long journey, which began when she left her home in Boyd, Wisconsin, to attend Virginia Tech as an undergraduate student. While there, she took an interest in hydrogeology, and she wanted to hone that focus when she returned to Wisconsin in 2018 as a UW-Madison graduate student.
“My goal coming into graduate school was to really focus on groundwater quality and geochemistry,” she says. “I had some general exposure to hydrogeology, but I wanted to specialize more on the groundwater quality aspect of it. A lot of my work since then has focused on radium in Wisconsin’s groundwater, which is a big challenge that a lot of Wisconsin communities are dealing with.”
About 70 percent of Wisconsin’s residents get their drinking water from groundwater sources, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. As groundwater moves through the aquifer, minerals and elements, including radium, can be dissolved out of the rock and into groundwater that is pumped by wells for drinking water. Prolonged exposure to radium can increase the risk of some types of cancer, including bone and lung, among other health concerns.
Wiersma has hands-on experience with this challenge, thanks to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program and funding from the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council. She’s worked with the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, water utility and residents to sample and analyze wells in the area. Fond du Lac has combated elevated radium levels in the past, and spent more than $30 million in 2009 to install a treatment system that removes radium from their water supply.
“Through that project, we learned that, even seeing these conditions on the broad scale that may point to elevated radium, it can be really difficult to predict high radium levels at the local scale, because local conditions are so important,” Wiersma says. “The radium is always going to be there in the rocks, but it depends on local geochemical conditions as to whether you’re going to have elevated levels or not at a specific location.”
Along with beginning her new job, Wiersma will graduate in May 2023. She’s grateful for the support and inspiration she’s had along the way, from her sister to a hydrogeologist at Virginia Tech who helped guide her as an undergraduate. At UW-Madison, Wiersma says Ginder-Vogel has been a great mentor and advisor. As she begins her next chapter, Wiersma says she’s ready to give back to Wisconsin, and to share her knowledge and expertise to make a difference for its communities.
“I’m really excited to keep working with local and county governments to help with whatever questions or issues they have with their groundwater,” Wiersma says. “It’s really satisfying to take what I’ve learned throughout my studies and apply it to something that’s practical and matters to a lot of residents across Wisconsin.”
Featured photo caption: PhD civil and environmental engineering student Amy Wiersma has worked with communities in Wisconsin to understand how radium gets into groundwater. Submitted photo.