Researchers Looking into the Effects of Pharmaceuticals on Fish in Iowa’s Waterways

Written by Sarah Feehan


At field site in Coralville, Iowa. 

Lab-reared, native minnows have been living in fish cages placed in a stream for the last four days, and now a team of researchers collects them to study the impacts of water quality on aquatic organisms.

For nearly the past two years, these researchers have been measuring chemical concentrations in the same stream, and this caged fish experiment is one of the ways researchers are connecting chemical presence in the environment to possible biological effects.

Greg LeFevre, an assistant professor of environmental engineering and faculty research engineer for IIHR at the University of Iowa, studies water quality, wastewater, and toxic substances.

LeFevre conducting a fish dissection. 

LeFevre, a principal investigator (PI) of the study, is researching what happens when pharmaceuticals enter our waterways. His research is funded through a National Competitive Grant under the USGS 104(g) Program. A goal of this program is to promote collaboration between the USGS and university scientists in research on significant national and regional water resources issues.

This working group consisted of representatives from the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). There were PIs, graduate students, and USGS scientists.

“We have a number of different things we are working on both in the lab and in the field to try and answer the questions comprehensively through multiple fields of expertise,” LeFevre says. “And out of this one grant, because there are so many things coming out of this, we hope that this field site will be the locus for a bunch of other research.”

Fish dissection for lab testing.

Wastewater-derived contaminants of emerging concerns (CEC) have demonstrated harmful effects to aquatic organisms. LeFevre believes that there is a critical need to understand how the changing complex mixture composition of CECs relates to biological effects. This understanding is critical in order to better protect ecosystem health in freshwater resources and inform stakeholder decisions.

“Everything that happens on the land is ultimately very connected to what goes on and into the water,” says LeFevre. “What we want to do is to develop some kind of understanding of the exposure to fish as well as some of the biological facts that are going on there.”

They hope to see the effects on fish throughout different areas of the stream. They will study a control group that permanently remains at the lab, a different group released in cages in the waterway after being brought up in the lab, and native fish who have spent their whole lives in the natural stream.

The waterway they are putting fish in and pulling fish from comes from an upstream wastewater treatment facility LeFevre describes as, “one of the best in the state.”

Preparing fish for dissection. 

The North Liberty Wastewater Treatment Plant, upstream of the tested waterway, has a membrane bioreactor, zero E. coli that comes out of the plant, and biological phosphorus and nitrogen removal. All of which is far beyond the permit requirements.

Rebecca Klaper, professor at the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, is a co-principal investigator on the study has also been a key collaborator to LeFevre’s research.

Regarding the data, Klaper explains, “The detection part is fantastic and the fact that we’ve gotten so much better at measuring these things is great. We might detect hundreds of chemicals in the water, but they might have no effect at all. So, the other part is trying to figure out if we really need to be concerned about them.”

“Today has been really exciting,” PhD candidate and research assistant at the University of Iowa Hui Zhi says. Zhi is one of four Iowa Water Center (IWC) Graduate Student Research Competition recipients for 2019.

“I think we were overprepared, which is great,” she says. “Having everything ready to go makes our work more efficient. And we also have so many people from our labs working together, making everything work very smoothly.”

Part of Zhi’s research through the IWC grant encompasses the sorption and biodegradation of pharmaceuticals in Iowa’s water. “It’s important we understand what’s in our drinking water, what’s in the treated wastewater, and what’s in the streams and rivers,” Zhi says.


Sarah Feehan is the communications specialist for the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in Political Science from Iowa State University. In fall of 2019, Feehan will begin acquiring her JD from Drake Law School.

Leung Selected as a Recipient for the Iowa Water Center’s Institute Research Grant Competition

Written by Sarah Feehan, Communications Specialist

AMES, IOWA – The Iowa Water Center (IWC) annually administers a statewide grant competition known as the IWC Graduate Student Research Competition.

The purpose of this funding is to enable graduate students to complete additional research objectives beyond the scope of their current work, with an emphasis on submitting their research to peer-reviewed publications.

Tania Leung has been selected among three other graduate students from across Iowa. She and the other recipients will receive funding for a variety of proposed research.

Tania Leung Head Shot
Tania Leung, PhD candidate at Iowa State University.

Leung’s proposed research encompasses harmful algal blooms and cyanobacteria in Iowa’s waters. It is titled ‘Determining the Effects of Co-Nutrient Availability on Harmful Algal Blooms Across Varying Lake Types’.

Associate Director of the IWC Melissa Miller says, “Water Resources Research Institutes like the Iowa Water Center were authorized by Congress in part to address emerging water resources concerns through research. Ms. Leung’s research investigates a question that water professionals in this region posed during a recent public discussion on harmful algal blooms.”

“I’m most looking forward to are the results of this research,” Leung says. “For example, do iron concentrations vary from lake to lake? And if so, why? Is it geologically impacted or not? And if these iron concentrations do vary from lake to lake, then the next question: Do these harmful algal blooms also vary in terms of how intense they are? And if they are very intense, do the toxins vary?”

Miller says, “This is an excellent example of the value of creating feedback loop between the research community with professionals and engaged citizens in order to rapidly respond to pressing issues.”

Get to Know Tania Leung, PhD Candidate at Iowa State University

Leung is from a small town in southern Florida about 5 or 6 hours north of Key West called Lauderhill. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Florida Atlantic University.

During her master’s, Leung discovered her passion for water quality and decided to pursue this interest with a PhD in geology and environmental sciences at Iowa State University (ISU).

“I always knew I wanted to do a PhD, but I just didn’t know where. So, I started my research by looking for professors who shared similar interests as me regarding water quality,” says Leung. She found what she was searching for.

Tania Leung and Research Work
Leung conducting field research.

“There was a professor at ISU who had a project that was looking into harmful algal blooms. She was trying to see if the iron content or concentrations in the lake water contribute to harmful algal blooms.”

Coming from Florida, Leung was familiar with widespread harmful algal blooms along the coast. However, she hadn’t heard of these blooms being inland until she came to ISU. She says this inland perspective in Iowa has given her, “new insight.”

Leung’s adviser, Elizabeth Swanner, saw on Twitter back in September a tweet about the IWC’s Graduate Student Research Competition. Swanner then ran the idea by Leung.

“Well I never thought a tweet of all things,” Leung says. “Normally I think we as graduate students look for agencies that are looking for grants that we can apply to, but this is interesting that my adviser saw something on Twitter. That was a fun and surprising moment when she told me that.”

One of Leung’s favorite hobbies is cooking. “I took up cooking during my master’s. I love trying new recipes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t,” Leung says.

For more information about this year’s recipients, please visit To reference the general press release for all four recipients, please visit:

The Iowa Water Center is a federally funded organization, part of the National Institutes for Water Resources. Located on the Iowa State University campus, it is one of 54 institutes located throughout the United States and U.S territories. The purpose of the Iowa Water Center is to identify water-related research needs, provide outreach and education opportunities, and disseminate information about Iowa’s water resources to the public to form better policies and everyday practices. Learn more at

0Sarah Feehan is the communications specialist for the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in Political Science from Iowa State University. In fall of 2019, Feehan will begin acquiring her JD from Drake Law School.