A Missouri Southern State University senior is studying the effects of mining remediation in this area on a creature that would likely go unnoticed by nearly everyone else — the snail.

Cameron Priester, a Carthage native studying biology and chemistry at MSSU, is researching the shell composition of snails from areas that have undergone significant cleanup efforts decades after the mining industry left its mark on the landscape. The objective, he said, is to determine whether the ecosystem is healthier after remediation.

"It could definitely tell us how well certain areas have been cleaned," he said. "People are concerned about the effects (mining) has on them, but we also have to worry about how it makes its way throughout the environment."

Most snails take up minerals from their surroundings, at least to some degree, Priester said. But what he hopes to discover is this: Have our local snails absorbed anything more harmful, such as lead or zinc, as a result of years' worth of mining of those materials? And have cleanup efforts of the past decade by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made any difference to their health now?

If remediation has been successful, snails pulled from mined areas should be comparable, in theory, in their shell makeup to snails collected from areas that haven't been subjected to mining activity, such as the biology pond on the MSSU campus. If snail shells from mined areas have higher concentrations of heavy metals than those from the control group, then perhaps there is still work to do.

For the project, Priester is collecting snails from mined areas in Joplin and Webb City and then specifically studying their shells — drying them, grinding them and dissolving them in nitric acid. The solution is analyzed through an atomic emission spectrometer, which will allow him to determine the shells' components.

MSSU student studying snails for impact of mining cleanup efforts

Missouri Southern student Cameron Priester (left) and Kyle Gustafson, MSSU biology and environmental health instructor, look for snails Wednesday afternoon at the MSSU biology pond. Snails from the pond are used as controls for experiments using liquified snails as tests for soil and water quality in mined areas. GLOBE | LAURIE SISK

'A real-world setting'

His adviser is Kyle Gustafson, assistant professor of biology and environmental health. Gustafson, in his second semester as a faculty member at MSSU, last fall sought help with his research projects from some of his students, and Priester took him up on the challenge. Gustafson’s idea to sample aquatic invertebrates aligned with Priester’s interests.

Priester also looped in Lynell Gilbert-Saunders, associate professor of chemistry, with whom he is working to develop the right acidic solutions for dissolving the snail shells. He doesn't have any meaningful results yet because the pair are still refining their approach.

"We want to make sure our methodology is accurate because we're looking at so few parts per million (of heavy metals)," Gilbert-Saunders said.

It's that interdisciplinary nature of the project — combining biology and chemistry — that has captured Priester's interest.

"This is like getting your feet wet in a real-world application setting," he said. "It has let me use different skills and advance other skills."

Priester is carrying out his research with the help of a $1,200 grant from Prairie Biotic Research, a nonprofit dedicated to basic field biological research in prairies and savannas. Since its inception in 2000, the nonprofit has funded more than 330 grants totaling nearly $350,000 to researchers in 38 states.

The grant will go toward the purchase of some equipment and supplies as well as fees and travel expenses related to an upcoming conference of the Ozark-Prairie chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, where Priester will present his findings.

Priester also expects to participate in Missouri Southern's annual research symposium, which is scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, in the Billingsly Student Center ballroom.

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Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.