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Science and Spirit: How Meaghan Wierzbic Found Her Way to Notre Dame

Guided by her passion for science and the spirit of the Sisters of Notre Dame, Notre Dame College student Meaghan Wierzbic has studied and worked her way through several setbacks—and found faith in the nature of her emerging education and career.

Wierzbic first faced the unknown in her scholarly pursuits when her parents developed financial issues three years ago, and she could no longer afford to attend Case Western Reserve University.

She was three years into an engineering degree there. But the ministries of the Sisters of Notre Dame inspired her to keep trying. So she explored uncertainty by serving as a biology research assistant at Case Western Reserve’s University Farm while taking part-time classes for a year and a half at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C). The courses were all she could afford, and she struggled with what to do next.

Wierzbic then was moved by a chance meeting that introduced her to Notre Dame and encouraged by a connection with a faculty member at the College.

And she has re-surfaced with a new strategy: She is an environmental science and ecology student and Choose Ohio First STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Scholar at Notre Dame now. And she has presented her own study—on the water quality of Nine Mile Creek in South Euclid, Ohio—at national and state conferences.

Driven by her awe for the environment, she is now on track to graduate from Notre Dame with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 2015 and plans to pursue a doctorate in microbial ecology research.

“Notre Dame has been the culmination of all these uncertain puzzle pieces of my life coming together,” she said.

Inspired by the Sisters of Notre Dame

While an undergraduate in polymer science and civil engineering at Case Western Reserve, Wierzbic attended retreats with a spiritual advisor at the Sisters of Notre Dame Chardon, Ohio, Provincial Center.

“I have always been impressed with how the Sisters of Notre Dame help empower women in different areas of the world, how they inspire them to change their lives to something better,” Wierzbic said. “Their discussion and reflection on faith and how it becomes action inspired me.”

When Wierzbic’s family could no longer afford her tuition at Case Western Reserve, she not only lost her education and career plan, but her place to live in campus housing, as well.

“Not being able to finish my degree, not being able to succeed, not being about to research again was demoralizing for me,” she said.

But the ministries of the Sisters helped her keep going. She was able to keep her job at the Case Western Reserve University Farm in Hunting Valley, Ohio, where she had been serving as a research assistant while a student. And she found a friend to stay with for a while, too, and then was able to rent a room where she worked.

Moved by a chance meeting

While living at Case Western Reserve’s University Farm, Wierzbic encountered her next unexpected result. This was a good one.

While working full-time as a research assistant at the farm and struggling to fit in basic biology classes and general education requirements at Tri-C, Wierzbic met a Hunting Valley police officer who would becomeher boyfriend, Steve Balaban ’14.

In addition to working in law enforcement, Balaban was a student in the security policy studies master’s degree program at Notre Dame at the time. He suggested Wierzbic speak to someone at the College about its biology major.

“I knew of the Sisters of Notre Dame through my spiritual connections, but I had never thought of going to Notre Dame. Then Steve mentioned it. He was impressed at how the College really seems to care,” Wierzbic said.

While visiting the campus, Wierzbic had a planned meeting with Tracey Meilander, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, who leads the environmental science and ecology studies concentration at the College.

“I had worked with the biology program at Case Western Reserve, as well as their environmental engineering programs. And you might not think it, but this program at Notre Dame is already a couple of years ahead of Case in the ecology area,” she said.

Encouraged by a College faculty member

Wierzbic said she was drawn to the Catholic ministry of the College, the caring of its community and the strength of its environmental science program, yet she still couldn’t afford it.

But she immediately connected with Meilander. The faculty member earned her doctorate from Kent State University, where Wierzbic would like to continue her study as part of the Ph.D. program in microbial ecology.

“When I doubted how I would be able to continue my studies, she was very inspirational,” Wierzbic said.

Meilander also is resourceful. Because Wierzbic had lived in Ohio for three years at Case Western Reserve, she met the residency requirement to become a STEM scholar. Meilander, who is project director for the Choose Ohio First STEM program, helped recommend her for the award.

That scholarship helped make Notre Dame affordable for Wierzbic.

Wierzbic still works at the Case Western Reserve University Farm as a research assistant, and she is a full-time student at Notre Dame now.

And through her classes, especially with Meilander, Wierzbic has furthered her love of scientific inquiry.

“I like answering questions. Half the time you don’t find the answers you are looking for, but looking for the answers is 90 percent of the fun,” she said.

Driven by her awe for the environment

It was Wierzbic’s Catholic spirit that also helped lead her to environmental science.

“I think I do connect environmental science and ecology with spiritual things,” she said. “When you are in nature, everything is changing. There are these awesome moments walking outside, like when the light catches on the water, and you realize God is pretty cool.”

The social justice efforts of the Sisters of Notre Dame also guided her interest in ecology studies.

“Our neglecting the environment affects the poorest of people on a larger scale,” she said. “Many in developing countries are more dependent on the environment, like those who live near the water, on islands or near the coast. Climate change can affect them more than most.”

Working with Meilander and classmates this year, Wierzbic has been instrumental in implementing the College’s Cleveland Foundationfunded Fenn Grant program, which provides environmental science and ecology students with service learning opportunities. Most recently Wierzbic helped to educate Girl Scouts in poverty-stricken areas of Cleveland about water preservation.

“Presenting at conferences and being a part of all the different programs at Notre Dame gives me a lot of confidence to work with different individuals now and to help them do what they need to succeed,” she said.

Found faith in emerging education …

Wierzbic’s current line of environmental investigation started as part of her research methods course with Meilander. With the service learning curriculum, the class conducted scientific studies for the nonprofit Friends of Euclid Creek.

Wierzbic recently presented her research on the water quality of Nine Mile Creek in the Euclid Creek Watershed to the Ohio Academy of Science and at the National Nonpoint Source Pollution Monitoring Conference. As part of the national convention, which was hosted in Cleveland, Wierzbic was chosen to lead the scientists and scholars who came from around the country on a tour of the watershed where she conducted her analysis.

Her project focuses on the creek, which has featured a series of rock step-down pools since 2008. Wierzbic said the system was installed to generate the more natural flow of a stream in place of the rush of a channelized basin in an effort to better filter pollutants out of the creek and help reduce erosion of the surrounding wetlands.

“This restoration project cost a lot of money, but through class I discovered not a lot of research has been conducted on how stream restoration projects in general affect the overall health of the stream, especially those that employ this steppool design,” Wierzbic said.

So she has been monitoring the water quality up-, mid- and downstream, measuring for pollutants. Wierzbic hypothesized she would find at least two contaminants but that the levels of both would be less concentrated at the end of the creek due to the filtering effect of the step-down system of pools and the surrounding wetlands.

The two contaminants she monitored: chloride, which is generally a pollutant found in fresh water, and phosphate, which is actually a nutrient but if present in concentrated levels—like it often is in areas near urban storm sewers— can degrade water quality.

Over eight months of study, Wierzbic found phosphate levels in Nine Mile Creek are significantly higher than the federal standard average, but the concentration of the pollutant does lessen downstream.

“It’s still early to tell, but the step-down design does seem to help,” she said.

Now, just as one answer in life or science often leads to several more questions, Wierzbic would like to further investigate whether the phosphate levels are affected by the fertilizers used at area golf courses. She said the nutrients likely run off the fairways and the greens into storm sewers and then the watershed.

As for the chloride levels, her findings, at first, were incomplete because the monitoring equipment she had been using went missing. So she only was able to collect measurements over two months, not enough to postulate an explanation— just one more uncertainty.

But this, too, has had a happy ending.

… and career

While Wierzbic appeared to be set back again, just recently, one more answer came for her by way of Notre Dame: Meilander found the resources to replace the tools.

And this line of research also is promising—and could lead to a long profession.

Since she has started monitoring again, Wierzbic has found chloride concentrations in the creek as high as three or more times the federal standard. So as she finishes the study, she will determine not only whether her hypothesis is supported but also—like with phosphate levels—then can propose a cause and how to measure its validity, too. She said the creek could have higher concentrations of chloride due to runoff of the salt used to treat the nearby South Euclid streets in winter.

And now Wierzbic could come full circle during her senior year, as well as into graduate school and her career.

After she finishes her water quality measurements and the recommendations—and likely the further studies—that will stem from them, she could use her civil engineering background to recommend ways to help prevent the salt and fertilizers from entering the creek.

“It’s been pretty amazing, all these different connections in my life,” she said. “They give me hope for the future.”

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Learn more about the College’s Cleveland Foundation-funded Fenn Grant program, which has provided environmental science and ecology students like Wierzbic with service learning opportunities.