Adam Jackson wins Royal Society of Chemistry Prize for best Undergraduate Dissertation with a Chemical theme

Adam Jackson graduated this year with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Biology. Adam completed his final year dissertation titled “Is BMWP An Accurate Indicator Of Organic Pollution?” Adam produced an excellent dissertation and was nominated for, and won the Royal Society of Chemistry Prize for best Undergraduate Dissertation with a Chemical theme. Adam will receive a Certificate from the RSC and a cheque for £250 when he graduates tomorrow. Here is Adams account of his dissertation.

adam jackson

“My Name is Adam Jackson and I’ve just been awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry Prize for best undergraduate dissertation with a chemical theme. The aim of my dissertation was to determine the accuracy of the biotic index known as BMWP. A biotic index is a numerical scale for determining the quality of an environment, using a specific group of indicator organisms, which live in that environment. In the case of BMWP the environment is rivers and the indicator organisms are benthic macroinvertebrates (invertebrates which live in the silt at the bottom of the river). BMWP is by far the most commonly used biotic index. Among those who rely on it are the Environment Agency who use it, in accordance with the EU Water Framework Directive, as one of their standard tests when monitoring and measuring river water quality.
To lend a little context to my dissertation, BMWP was created in the 1970’s by the Biological Monitoring Working Party (BMWP), which later gave its name to the index, and was designed to be an indicator of the ‘biological condition’ of rivers. This is problematic as ‘biological condition’ is a very ambiguous term, which does not relate to any specific chemical water quality variable (the three primary chemical water quality variables being oxygen concentration, phosphate concentration and nitrate concentration). This limits the usefulness of the index, as it can only give a very vague indication of the state of a river. Further compounding the inaccuracy of the index is the fact that no real-world data was used in constructing it. Instead, the party sent out questionnaires to the leading river scientists at the time asking them which invertebrate families they believed to be more tolerant of poor water. They then used these, highly subjective, questionnaires to rank the 63 most common benthic macroinvertebrate families and to assign each a score between 1 and 100. Since its inception, BMWP has been revised in an attempt to address this lack of empiricism its creation. However, studies comparing the accuracy of the original and revised indices have shown only a marginal improvement in the revised index. A further problem with BMWP is that it is now most commonly used to determine oxygen concentration, and to infer the level of organic pollution, in rivers. This is despite the fact it was never designed to be used in such a way and that no changes have been made to the index to ensure it actually does correlate with oxygen concentration.

With this in mind, I set out to determine whether the BMWP score for a river does, in fact, correlate with the oxygen concentration, phosphate concentration or nitrate concentration of the same river. To do this I decided not only to collect my own, primary, data but also to incorporate as much secondary data as possible, from as many sources as possible. For my part, I collected my own data from the River Nore in Ireland. I chose this river as there had already been a number of studies conducted, and published, on the river and I was aware that the river is a favourite among local fishermen, so getting access to the river bank, in order to collect samples, would not be a problem. I collected secondary data from a number of other sources, and studies, including a large database held by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The analysis of the data showed that there is no correlation between the BMWP score for a river and the oxygen concentration, phosphate concentration or nitrate concentration of the river. Furthermore, BMWP was shown to be less accurate the lower the water quality in a river is. Hardly a useful characteristic for a tool which, by its very nature, is more likely to be used on lower quality rivers. Given evident inaccuracy of BMWP, the final section of my dissertation explored a means of deriving a new index to replace it. I suggested using an advanced multimetric weighted averaging model developed by Haase and Nolte (2008) in concert with a large, and varied, dataset of river’s BMWP scores along with their respective nitrate, phosphate and oxygen concentrations.

With regard to the award, being nominated alone was an incredible honour. To actually win is still something I have trouble believing; it’s certainly something I never could have imagined when I started out on my dissertation project. I owe a number of people a great debt of gratitude (too many to list here) for supporting me during the project and allowing my dissertation to win this award. Although I intend to thank them all personally, if I haven’t already, I would also like to thank them once again, here. “

Adam should be very proud of his award and achievements while at the University. All the Biosciences team look forward to seeing how his career developments now that he has graduated from the University.

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