Science Alumni Spotlight: Brian Brigham

November 1, 2019

Brian Brigham

My research focuses on the impact of urban wastewater discharge on greenhouse gas emissions and how these emissions contribute to global climate change.  

I graduated with my Ph.D. in the Earth and Environmental Science Program in the Fall of 2018, co-advised by Drs. Jeffrey Bird and Gregory OíMullan, both at Queens College and members of the EES doctoral faculty. My Ph.D. research investigated the impact waste water discharge has on greenhouse gas emissions and microbial ecology throughout the Hudson River Estuary. My field sites include wetlands, the tidal Hudson River Estuary from the Battery to the lock north of Albany, and wastewater discharge sites.    

My research training was somewhat non-traditional.  I graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a Bachelorís Degree in Molecular Biology, and I worked in a biotech company, Nanogen, Inc., for seven years before applying to graduate school. My interest in environmental science and a desire to study the severity of human-driven climate change drove my decision to earn my Masterís Degree in Ecology from the University of California, Davis where I investigated the impact of wastewater discharge on methane gas emissions from the Tijuana Estuary. I pursued this line of research throughout my Ph.D., curious of how wastewater from major urban centers such as New York City contribute to their climate footprint. I found that this occurs in two ways:  1) Through direct contribution of greenhouse gases from wastewater discharge; and 2) And indirectly by enhancing the activity of greenhouse gas-producing anaerobic microbes in estuarine environments (wetlands, sediments, and the water column).  

Water Flushing Bay

To investigate these questions I examined carbon dioxide and methane gas concentrations throughout the tidal Hudson River Estuary. In this study we measured greenhouse gas surface concentrations as well as a suite of biological, physical, and chemical parameters including enterococci bacteria, a fecal indicator used as a wastewater tracer by health organizations. The greatest greenhouse gas concentrations were in wastewater discharge areas, like Newtown Creek and Flushing Bay in Queens, and the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.  We showed that greenhouse gases were linked to enterococci concentrations, which made an important connection between sewage discharge, greenhouse gases, and climate change.  We found similar results in the lab:  carbon and nitrogen found in wastewater caused higher methane gas production.  Iíve recently published this work in the journals Limnology and Oceanography and Soil Science Society of America Journal.

Person in front of machine

During the last year of my Ph.D., my partner was offered a tenure track position in the department of Biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, so we relocated to San Antonio where I am now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  In this position Iím investigating the oxidative properties of nuclear materials in the department of Physics and Astronomy under the guidance of Dr. Elizabeth Sooby-Wood.  My doctoral research instilled in me the ability to use a multifaceted skill set (instrum entation, data analysis, and writing) that has fostered my success in Dr. Sooby-Woodís laboratory. Iíve branched out to X-ray imaging and kinetic oxidation analyses of potential nuclear fuels and materials. The cross-disciplinary nature of my research lies in part due to my interest in studying oxidative reactions, both in anaerobic systems at biologically relevant temperatures and in simulated nuclear reactors above 1000∞C.  But itís also due to being the 2nd body of a two body ìproblemî (my partner and I are both academics). With few post-doc opportunities in environmental science in San Antonio, I used the strong analytical skills I developed during my PhD to change fields. 

My future goal is to use the skills and knowledge I have gained from both my Ph.D. and postdoctoral research to investigate wastewater impacts on microbial ecology.  While estuarine research still interests me greatly, Iím a four hour drive from the nearest estuary (Corpus Christi Bay).  However, groundwater is precious in central Texas, and sewage contamination is a long term problem that has just recently gotten the public and scientific communityís attention. While monitoring of fecal indicator bacteria (from sewage overflows) following storm events is on-going here, Iím interested in applying the techniques I have learned to study the impact anthropogenic inputs on fresh water streams, aquifers and inland lakes. These water bodies are little studied and have been demonstrated to have larger than expected global impacts. How cities alter the biogeochemistry of these systems is a question well worth studying and will form the basis of my research plans going forward.