Wastewater may hold the key to discovering the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on Clarkson’s Potsdam Hill Campus — before anyone even suspects they are infected.

Under the direction of Shane Rogers, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, the university is conducting cutting-edge, wastewater-based epidemiology — in other words, analyzing sewage samples for trace amounts of the coronavirus. 

“Detection in sewage provides an indicator of potential new cases on campus and is another layer of security in the network of protective measures we have employed,” said Rogers.

In collaboration with local government and school districts, the project is expanding across the country to provide a key early-warning system for communities, public schools, and higher education institutions in St. Lawrence County and beyond.

Rogers is just the scientist for the job. He received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree and Ph.D in civil and environmental engineering from Iowa State University and has been at Clarkson since 2007. His research has included exploring disease-causing substances in contaminated natural and engineered systems and developing techniques to detect pathogens in agricultural watersheds. He has long been intrigued by how pathogens move through communities and may be transmitted in waste.

In the beginning days of the pandemic, Rogers noticed that references to wastewater testing “kept popping up in the literature.” He realized, “we could do that here.”

“That” meant developing a comprehensive plan for the Potsdam campus, procuring equipment to supplement existing instrumentation and involving student researchers.

The system became operational in September.


How It Works

An automated surveillance network has been installed in seven sewers across campus that service dormitories and residences. In 15-minute intervals over 24 hours, twice a week, the system at each sewer pulls up wastewater from the sewer line into 2.5-gallon bottles housed in an above-ground station. The stations are temperature controlled so that any virus present won’t be killed by extreme heat or cold.

The bottles are collected, often by students, and then it’s off to the lab. There, the sewage soup is placed in an ultracentrifuge and subjected to a force about 300,000 times that of gravity to capture the solid waste in a process that Rogers calls “turd reconstitution.”

To test the genetic makeup (RNA) of the waste, thousands of droplets are assayed by a droplet digital PCR (polymerase chain reaction) system. Laser beams shoot through the droplets and emit specific wavelengths of light that indicate if the virus is present or not.

The non-invasive process is a way to quickly and routinely test for the presence of COVID-19 in a discrete population — a dorm, for example — or a larger community and get a jump on the disease to prevent further spread.


All Hands on Deck

Rogers has pulled together individuals from throughout the Clarkson community to work on the project: post-doctoral research associate Hema Priyamvada Ravindran, graduate lab technicians, undergraduate interns, and engineering students as well as students and faculty from the Geographic Information System course, to assist in mapping sewer and sampling networks.

Alexander Kupin, ’21, a computer science major, has even developed sensors that track how often toilets are flushed in specific dorms so that the wastewater collection systems can be programmed to do their thing at peak times. Data is collected on specific locations so that any virus that shows up can be isolated down to the dormitory floor or apartment.

Clarkson is also testing samples from the villages of Potsdam and Canton, as well as nearby St. Lawrence University, SUNY Canton, and the North Country School in Lake Placid. The program has received input and support from the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department and Board of Health along with New York Sen. Joseph A. Griffo.

“Wastewater testing is a really good way of being ahead of the curve, of determining if there’s an outbreak, even a small one, on campus before it gets out of hand,” said Zvi Szafran, president, SUNY. “It allows you then to divert your resources right where they’re most needed very, very promptly.”

Anthony G. Collins, president, Clarkson, began his career in Potsdam in 1982 as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Naturally, he says, Rogers’ program is “near and dear to my heart.” About $300,000 in university funding has supported the purchase of the highly sensitive lab equipment with an additional estimated $200,000 invested in the sampling equipment and lab staffing, he said.

“It’s a very significant investment, but we believe it’s worth it because of the immediate impact it can have,” he said. “Clarkson is literally known in the environmental engineering world for cutting-edge technology and innovation, and so this just adds to that quiver of arrows of success. This is a point of pride for us and for the North Country.”