Once-Distant Dream Achieved

For alumna Yeyzy Vargas (2014 biological sciences), attending college once seemed like a distant dream. She was raised in a low-income household and although she excelled in the Chicago Public Schools, Vargas was filled with doubt about her college prospects. “With help from my high school advisor, I navigated the online process and applied to UIC,” she said. “When I received my acceptance letter and found out I qualified for a full tuition waiver, it was a dream come true!” 

Yeyzy Vargas

Yeyzy Vargas. Photo courtesy of Vargas

Vargas’ academic accomplishments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences led to success as an intern working on a National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey project designed to improve monitoring of the Cuyahoga River water for public recreational activities. The internship was made possible through the Mosaics in Science program, developed by the National Park Service and Geological Society of America.

After graduating in May, Vargas began the internship at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park 20 miles south of Cleveland, Ohio. “The Cuyahoga River is designated for primary contact recreation, meaning the water is suitable for full-body contact activities, such as swimming, canoeing, or scuba-diving,” Vargas explained. “After bad thunderstorms, high concentrations of Escherichia coli (a fecal-indicator bacterium) in the water prohibit recreational use until bacteria levels recede. In order to enhance water-quality reporting, the US Geological Survey and National Park Service in 2004 began testing a predictive-model tool based on turbidity (the cloudiness of a fluid related to its particle-density) and rainfall that provides park visitors with the near-real-time information needed to assess the recreational water quality of the river. 

Arial view of Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River.

“My work collecting water samples on site validated the model’s results by comparing data (gathered through traditional methods) with the model predictions,” Vargas continued. “I collected samples twice a day, three times a week and analyzed the water for turbidity and E.coli concentrations. The data I collected are modeled alongside the predictive results and posted publicly for comparison. The new predictive model increases accuracy to 86.7 percent, compared to the traditional method, which had an accuracy level of 77.8 percent.”

Vargas cites a high school credit-eligible environmental science course at the Lincoln Park Zoo as first sparking her interest in the natural sciences. “But UIC is where I discovered my deep interest in biological systems—from gene-level systems at the micro scale to biotic interactions visible with the naked eye at the macro scale,” Vargas said. “During my last year studying biological sciences, my interests refined further to focus on microbiology and water quality.”

Vargas supplemented her biological sciences studies with a minor in earth and environmental sciences, which enhanced her understanding of how living organisms (biotic systems) interact with abiotic systems, such as water, temperature, atmosphere, and soil. “My major and minor complemented each other so I could see the full picture of the interacting processes of our planet.”

Following an undergraduate introductory microbiology course with lecturer Sandra Gibbons, Vargas was “awakened and inspired” by the global health issues related to water quality discussed in the class. Vargas then took a graduate-level course focused on the analysis of water and wastewater quality. “I absolutely loved it,” Vargas said. “So much so that water systems became my scientific passion and I decided to get hands-on experience in the field.

“I’ve always been attracted to and excelled in the humanities and natural sciences, so choosing the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was simple,” she said. “My experience at UIC helped me become a better organized and more self-sufficient person,” Vargas said. “I feel blessed for this internship opportunity and first-hand experience in a field I’ve grown very passionate about. I now know how to accomplish goals by taking things one step at a time.”

Vargas is currently looking at graduate schools while continuing to work and gain experience in water quality and microbiology. “The mentorship of my LAS professors inspired me to do my best and to not be afraid to take chances when an opportunity presents itself,” Vargas concluded. “Whatever goals you set for yourself, always enjoy the journey.”