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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

VMASC Summer High School Interns Make Scientific Discovery About Lake Ballard at Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve

By Jessica Zimmerman and Patrick Ball

This past summer, four local high school students participated in a paid STEM internship program hosted by the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) and the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. Students gathered and analyzed samples from varying depths of Lake Ballard, located at Hoffler Creek in Portsmouth. What was believed for more than 20 years to be a mix of salty and fresh water turned out to be devoid of salt.

"I was very surprised that we detected very little salt in the lake," said Patrick Ball, senior project scientist for VMASC and on-site supervisor for the internship. "This is not what we expected to find at all."

Lake Ballard is a 39-acre, man-made lake that was dug in the 1990s as a "borrow pit" by the Virginia Department of Transportation during the construction of state Route 164. During the project, workers broke through an underground aquafer, fed by the Hoffler Creek, and the pit filled with brackish water - a mix of salty and fresh water - and formed the lake. When researcher Deanna Dodson Austin studied the lake between 1999 and 2001, the water was solidly brackish. Very little research has been done on the lake since then.

"I just think it's so cool that we made a real scientific discovery, right here in our own backyard," said Nakayia Hudson, one of the interns and a rising senior at Manor High School in Portsmouth. "I feel like the work we are doing is going to have a real impact on future generations of citizen scientists in our community."

The interns are also looking at the microbiology of the lake and analyzing the water for nitrogen, dissolved oxygen and other bio-indicators. Jessica Johnson, director for STEM and student engagement at VMASC, and program coordinator for the internship, is pleased with the interns' discovery. "This is exactly the kind of impactful, real-world experience we strive to provide for our interns," Johnson said. "I can't wait to see what they discover next!"

The goal for the interns during the summer was to discover as much as possible about the lake, following a strange occurrence in late 2021. "We didn't think there were any fish in the lake at all but were surprised when thousands of seagulls filled the sky and descended on the lake," said Ashley Morgan, director of Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve. The seagulls were feasting on what turned out to be an explosion of shad - a fish which lives in the Atlantic Ocean, but typically only spawns in fresh water.

The next steps for the interns will be returning to the lake with more sophisticated equipment, accompanied by career scientists from Old Dominion University, to verify and expound on their findings.

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