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Geology Doctoral Student Awarded NASA Ohio Space Grant Fellowship to Study Lake Erie Water Quality

Posted Aug. 11, 2014
enter photo description
A satellite image taken Aug. 3 by MODIS instruments,
onboard both the Aqua and Terra NASA satellites, shows
various color-producing agents (CPAs) across the entire
Lake Erie basin. The use of MODIS data allows researchers
to analyze water quality on a larger scale, as well as take
advantage of twice-daily imaging.

Dulci Avouris, an incoming Kent State University Geology Ph.D. student, was always interested in water. On any typical day, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, native swam in Lake Michigan and drove past the pumping station where they process her drinking water. Over the years, she noticed changes in the beach and water levels. She became more and more interested in the issues of algal blooms, zebra mussels, Asian carp and preserving the quality of Great Lakes water. These experiences and her curiosity eventually led her to Kent State to follow her passion. 

Avouris was recently awarded a NASA Ohio Space Grant Consortium doctoral fellowship in Applied Geology to study the water quality of Lake Erie through satellite remote sensing.  By analyzing NASA satellite data, she will assist in identifying potential harmful algal blooms (HABs), which pose numerous risks to human and animal health in addition to impacting taste and odor of drinking water for affected populations in the region.

With her advisor, Joseph Ortiz, Ph.D., professor of geology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent State, Avouris will expand on established methods for using remote sensing data from the MODIS instruments, onboard both the Aqua and Terra NASA satellites, to identify various color-producing agents (CPAs) across the entire Lake Erie basin. Data is collected from the European Space Agency’s MERIS and United States’ MODIS instruments that both measure the reflectance of light from various bands in the visible and infrared. The use of MODIS data will allow the researchers to analyze water quality on a larger scale, as well as take advantage of twice-daily imaging, providing more complete coverage of the Lake Erie basin.

The color-producing agents may be phytoplankton, colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM), detritus, or terrigenous inorganic particles. Ortiz, who has been studying water quality since 2004, says the rapid identification of constituents in the water is vitally needed to provide timely data for water management purposes and for the detection of HABs.

“Historically, the optical complexity of Lake Erie has made remote sensing applications challenging,” Ortiz says. “However, new reflectance data from the MERIS sensor has produced excellent results in detection of chlorophyll-a concentrations, leading to an effective method for discriminating between various CPAs. This is particularly important because Lake Erie serves as an economic and social resource, and provides much of the regional drinking water supply.”

enter photo description
A second satellite image taken by MODIS instruments,
onboard both the Aqua and Terra NASA satellites, also
shows various color-producing agents (CPAs) across
the  entire Lake Erie basin.

Ortiz says that some of the harmful side effects of the blue-green algal blooms that produce a number of toxins, include skin rashes and liver and neurological problems in humans as well as a discoloration and foul taste in the water.

“Young children, the elderly and pets are most at risk. We need to watch for the EPA warnings on the Ohio EPA website,” Ortiz says. “When phytoplanktons die, their bodies create a drawdown of the bottom-water oxygen. This creates a dead zone in the summertime due to low to no oxygen in the water.” 

Avouris is building on the knowledge and skills she acquired during her master’s degree program in geophysics at Michigan Technological University, where she also earned a bachelor’s degree in geology. There, she was a recipient of a NASA Michigan Space Grant Consortium award, which allowed her to continue her master’s degree thesis, investigating new ways to apply remotely sensed information to volcanic activity.

“I want to contribute to the understanding of the Great Lakes ecosystems, so that oversight, management and husbandry of our water resources can be both timely and effective,” Avouris says.

The award will provide her with the resources to conduct research during her time at Kent State. Avouris is considering two possible career paths, either continuing research as a faculty member at a four-year university while teaching classes, or working as an environmental consultant in the Great Lakes area.

“I believe that this doctoral program will help me focus on which direction I want my career path to take. However, either path would allow me to be effective and involved in preserving the quality of Great Lakes water.”

For more information about Kent State’s Department of Geology, visit

For more information about the Ohio Space Grant Consortium, visit