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Former chief chemist at Toledo Water Treatment plant on H2O quality quest at UT

When Brenda Snyder was 10 years old, her mother dragged her to a park along the Maumee River in Toledo before sunrise to witness a phenomenon.

“I remember I felt a little crazy climbing up on the monkey bars at five o’clock in the morning to look at a comet,” Snyder said. “But my mother was always interested in science, and that moment perked my interest.”

Brenda Snyder posed for a photo in her lab at the UT Lake Erie Center next to the SEAL AutoAnalyzer, a new lab instrument that she is working to get up and running by mid-July. Instead of sending samples to another lab to be analyzed for levels of nutrients, she will be able to do it at the Lake Erie Center – which means results will be available sooner.

Brenda Snyder posed for a photo in her lab at the UT Lake Erie Center next to the SEAL AutoAnalyzer, a new lab instrument that she is working to get up and running by mid-July. Instead of sending samples to another lab to be analyzed for levels of nutrients, she will be able to do it at the Lake Erie Center – which means results will be available sooner.

Fast-forward half a century and the grandmother of six still harbors a zeal for astronomy. However, her chosen scientific career is chemistry.

Snyder is a senior researcher at the UT Lake Erie Center who focuses on water quality.

“It is my job to do everything in my power to make sure that drinking water is safe,” said Snyder, a UT alumna and licensed water operator in the state of Ohio.

“She’s a heck of a chemist,” Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, UT algae researcher and associate professor of ecology, said. “I learn something new every day working alongside her in the lab.”

Bridgeman hired Snyder after she retired from the city of Toledo, where she spent 15 years as a chemist at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant overseeing chemical processes that transform raw water from Lake Erie into high-quality drinking water.

In 2014, Snyder was the chief chemist who navigated through the Toledo water crisis when the city issued a ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory for half a million residents for three days due to the level of the toxin microcystin detected in the drinking water.

This is a close-up shot of the SEAL AutoAnalyzer. In the tubes, the bubbles separate samples. The instrument can run up to four different analyses at once on one sample; it measures how much phosphate, silica, nitrate and ammonia are in the water.

This is a close-up shot of the SEAL AutoAnalyzer. In the tubes, the bubbles separate samples. The instrument can run up to four different analyses at once on one sample; it measures how much phosphate, silica, nitrate and ammonia are in the water.

A year later, the algal bloom in Maumee Bay was much larger, but did not impact the public water supply.

“I would like to find some answers as to what happened that day,” Snyder said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here at UT. What is triggering the production of toxin? Why is the size of the algal bloom not related to the amount of toxin released? There is still a ton of science that needs to be done.”

Snyder’s public health mission has shifted to early warning. She is working to find faster ways to alert water treatment plant operators if there is anything in Maumee Bay heading toward the city of Toledo’s intake pipe.

“Information that is two-weeks-old doesn’t do them any good,” Snyder said. “By then the water has already come, gone and is back through the wastewater treatment plant.”

“Brenda’s extensive experience helps us academics connect with the professionals who deal with water treatment on a daily basis,” Bridgeman said. “She knows most of the water utility managers and chemists along Lake Erie. She speaks their language, knows what challenges they face, and what information they need from us to help meet those challenges.”  

Throughout the summer algal bloom season, Snyder is part of Bridgeman’s team that collects water samples aboard UT’s 28-foot research vessel throughout Maumee Bay and the open waters of the western basin. She then runs those samples through what is called the ELISA test, the standard method of measuring the concentration of toxins, like microcystin, associated with cyanobacterial blooms, or harmful algal blooms, in Lake Erie.

Snyder also is tasked with getting a new lab instrument up and running called the SEAL AutoAnalyzer, which analyzes nutrients found in the water, such as phosphorus, ammonia, silica, nitrate and nitrite.

“This tool will help us look at things that feed the algae, which create the microcystin,” Snyder said. “We know the growth of algae is linked to phosphate and nitrogen in the water. But what other subtle things are triggering the overgrowth of the blue-green algae? That’s what we need to find out.”

The machine moves small water samples separated by bubbles through thin tubes that look like clear spaghetti. The tubes thread into different chemicals, and the data is graphed on a computer in the lab.

“The biggest way having this instrument in our lab will change how we conduct research is to get us the results in a more timely fashion,” Snyder said. “Dr. Bridgeman has had to send our samples to another lab to be analyzed for nutrients. We tend to send them in a batch at the end of summer. Instead of taking months to process, we hope to get results within a week of collecting the samples.”

Snyder and the team of researchers at the UT Lake Erie Center will use the SEAL AutoAnalyzer as another tool in their arsenal to help search for answers and develop new protocols for monitoring source water in Lake Erie that could benefit water treatment plants across the country that are affected by algal blooms.

“It’s darn near everywhere,” Snyder said. “They’re having problems in Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, California and anywhere in the South.”

With a wry sense of humor, Snyder said she mixes science and a little bit of art in her water quality quest. It’s one that began at UT.

“I went back to school at the age of 40,” said Snyder, who graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology. “My son graduated from UT a year later. I joke that I had to wait until he was old enough to tutor me through the calculus classes, which he did.”

But you’d have to rewind farther to discover the moment a little girl on the monkey bars with her eyes in the sky found a love of science in her heart to last a lifetime.