Surprising studies: Senior Juan Flores’ research into PFAS

Author: John LeSage

Juan Flores

Scat, something that most may not think much about — or even like dealing with — is, for Juan Flores, a fascinating look into animal behavior and aquatic chemistry.

His research, with the guidance of Daniele Miranda, assistant research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Gary Lamberti, the Rev. Julius A. Nieuwland C.S.C Professor of Aquatic Science, examines the levels of per-/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in scat. These investigations, important at a time when PFAS awareness is increasing across the U.S., are also interdisciplinary, weaving together chemistry, animal behavior, and the environment.

Flores is a current senior from Nebraska pursuing a major in biological sciences while concentrating in ecology and environmental sciences. His research started with similar interdisciplinary studies at the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC) in northern Wisconsin, in 2022.

In about two months, he and other students waded through streams and counted trees, collecting data and doing experiments. They dove into all kinds of ecological studies, from counting phytoplankton in the nearby lakes, to trapping invertebrates, to studying the preserved specimens of larger mammals.

Flores has since taken his initial interest in research and the environment to the concern of PFAS, which are a group of chemicals widely used in consumer products from nonstick skillets to waterproof jackets. Despite their widespread use, they have been linked to many health issues in both humans and wildlife — and they’re extremely hard to get out of the environment as well due to their chemical properties. Flores stressed the importance of studying these chemicals, and the difficulties that crop up along the way.

“Although it’s important to study PFAS, it can be really expensive and difficult to study — especially in mammalian species — because of the restrictions of working with vertebrates and their difficult nature.”

He’s adopted scat as a creative solution to this problem.

“In order to find an easier way to study PFAS in mammals, I decided to figure out if mammalian scat can be indicative of PFAS load . . . in three different species of mammals with different diet types.”

Ultimately, Flores is investigating what kinds and amounts of PFAS accumulate in mammals based on their diets — one herbivore (deer), one carnivore (coyote), and one omnivore (raccoon). He’s also analyzing two different locations for each species, curious to see whether proximity to contaminated bodies of water increases PFAS levels in these species. He’s excited to see what his results look like.

“I hope to have results in a couple of weeks,” Flores said, “and I’ll present my findings at COS-JAM in May.”

Flores, like many other students who have done undergraduate research, revealed how many connections it has allowed him to make, both among scientific subjects and other students. It’s something he highly recommends that all students try, even if they’re not sure what they’re interested in or what their future plans might be.

“I’ve always encouraged other students to pursue research if they think they want to pursue grad school, or if they aren’t sure what they want to do after they graduate. For those pursuing grad school, it is a great opportunity to get an idea of what grad school could be like, and it allows them to gain experience and begin to network. For those that aren’t sure, research can be a great way to explore their options,” he said.

Flores himself plans to eventually attend graduate school, but he said that he would like to continue diving into ecology even deeper first.

“I want to take a couple of years off before and explore the field of ecology, and hopefully take some time to explore places I haven’t been to,” he said.