LaGuardia Community College Students Play Important Research Role in the Cleanup Effort of Newtown Creek

Long Island City, NY—In the first step in the revitalization of Newtown Creek, a highly polluted waterway in Long Island City that has been designated a Superfund site, a group of LaGuardia Community College students are supplementing the EPA’s data collection plan by going on site and collecting water samples and microscopic organisms of the plankton community.

The young researchers, who began the ongoing service-learning project this summer at Dutch Kills and Whale Creek, two tributaries of Newtown Creek, measured dissolved oxygen, water clarity, acidity and other factors.  The Newtown Creek is located across the street from one of the College’s buildings.

“The students’ research will provide information that will enable us to gain a better understanding of the harsh conditions experienced by organisms that live in the water and how these conditions could be improved,” said Dr. Sarah Durand, a biology professor in the LaGuardia’s Environmental Science program, who added that the primary cause of poor water quality at the Dutch Kills study site appears to be the large discharge pipes that dump a combination of street runoff and sewage into the water after it rains.

The Environmental Science program, one of the College’s newest degree programs, is collaborating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York City Department of Environmental Program on this initiative.

“This is a very exciting project for our students because they are participating in a serious fieldwork that will impact the community,” said Dr. Holly Porter-Morgan, director of the Environmental Science program.  “They are collecting raw environmental data and then going back to the College lab where they are using sophisticated equipment to process their samples.”

Dr. Porter-Morgan went on to say that although the agency is doing the same research, because the creek is in our own backyard, we are able to regularly collect samples.  “We are the agency’s eyes and ears on the ground, and we keep our feet in the water,” she said.

Students are also testing water samples for entrerococcus bacteria, which is found in raw sewage.  Ismail Mhaber, a civil engineering student, has been processing samples collected and delivered to the LaGuardia laboratory by “citizen-scientists from other regions of Newtown Creek and from the East River community.  “I really enjoyed collecting water samples to test for enterococcus,” said Ismail, “and going back to the lab and looking at the samples under a microscope.”

The students’ research is uncovering is a wide range of simple organisms thriving in these waters, everything from horseshoe crabs to fish.  “There is a lot more biodiversity than what people thought,” said Dr. Porter-Morgan.  “It is fascinating to me that there is so much alive there.”

This fall, one of Dr. Porter-Morgan’s students will be looking very specifically at the actual organisms that are living on the steps of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, a quarter-mile public walkway along the creek, which are providing a habitat for these simple creatures.   The environmental science student will be responsible for setting sample sites on the stairs and looking seasonally at what lives there. 

“The ultimate goal is to clean the water, but we do not know what is possible until we do these essential steps,” said Dr. Porter-Morgan.  “And it is important for our students that they are doing research, which is being used by city, state and federal agencies, that will make a difference in their own neighborhoods.”

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LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit to learn more.