Student researcher honored with first annual Rengao Song Scholarship

Do you know what karst groundwater systems are? Rachel Kaiser is happy to explain as she knows a thing or two about water. The Ph.D. candidate is researching antibiotic resistance in urban karst groundwater systems, which are common in Kentucky. It’s a landscape in which caves, springs, sinkholes and sinking streams are found. Groundwater in karst systems experiences little natural water filtration through soils and rock as compared to other aquifers. Because of that, karst groundwater is much more susceptible to activities and pollutants occurring at the surface of the earth.

Kaiser’s dedication to water quality research in this area earned her the first annual Rengao Song Scholarship for Water Science and Technology, presented to her at the 2021 Kentucky/Tennessee (KY/TN) Water Professionals Conference held August 15-18 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Earlier this year, Louisville Water Company and the KY/TN Section of the American Water Works Association (AWWA) partnered to honor Dr. Song with a scholarship for graduate students who embody his spirit of innovation and excellence in water quality.

Dr. Song, who is considered an industry icon, retired from Louisville Water in October 2020 as the Director of Water Quality and Research after serving more than 20 years with the company. Dr. Song and his team have received numerous awards and accolades over the years, including the 2020 Samuel Arnold Greeley Award, the most prestigious research paper award presented by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Kaiser is studying Environmental Science at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tennessee and will graduate with her doctorate in 2022. She is thankful for the award and will use her $10,000 scholarship to aid her research.

“It’s great to know that there are people and organizations out there to help support student research and help us get through school,” she said. “I eventually want to go the research route when I graduate – either work at a university, with the EPA or work internationally with the World Health Organization or the United Nations.”

To be eligible for the award, students must be a resident of Kentucky or Tennessee or enrolled in a graduate degree program in either state. The scholarship is awarded based on the value of the research and how it supports the improvement of the water quality and treatment in the two states.

Louisville Water’s current Director of Water Quality and Research Peter Goodmann was on the selection committee for this award.

“Rengao’s lifetime commitment to mentoring and supporting upcoming scientists is the basis for this scholarship,” he said. “Rachel was a superior candidate for this award as her research is at once challenging and creative and will provide insight and benefits to water quality.”

Kaiser’s research includes how the environment influences antibiotic resistance in source water by looking at water quality, precipitation, and land use. Kaiser also wants to influence policy and has an internship with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health located in Hamilton, Canada, where she will work on creating a water stewardship framework. She hopes that her work can help water systems stop problems before they start.

“The overall goal is to understand if antibiotic resistance is occurring in urban karst groundwater and then how we can potentially manage these emerging contaminants in order to protect groundwater sources, as nearly a quarter of the global population uses karst groundwater as a drinking water source,” she explained.  “Not a lot of research has been done on the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in karst groundwater. Understanding this potential threat to human and environmental health will aid in preserving this resource and developing effective regulations to protect public health.”

Kaiser’s water samples are collected from the karst aquifer in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where she started this research while working on her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Geoscience from Western Kentucky University.

“I really enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of this research, including water chemistry and molecular biology as opposed to a solely engineering approach toward water resource management, so I thought this award would be a really good fit for me as that was Dr. Song’s approach as well,” said the Independence, Kentucky native. 

For details on next year’s award, including the online application and selection criteria, visit