Everyone was watching as I threw a bucket into the Spree River in Berlin. It must have seemed weird, but I was doing my first LBA like a true scientist! 

This semester, the LBA for my natural sciences class, “Analyzing Matters and Molecules,” left me with a memorable experience, requiring me to use the toolkits to test a hypothesis about water quality in Berlin.  Excited to finally conduct scientific research in the real world as a Minerva student, I pressured myself to turn it into something meaningful, not just for academics but also to immerse in Berlin. I spent one afternoon biking around the banks of the Spree River, which I only knew the name of until this assignment, and observing everything on my way, from the size and color of different river segments to human activities along the bank. At the northern branch of the river, I saw a swarm of tourist boats and realized they don’t sail through the southern branch. An idea clicked in my mind. I hypothesized that the boating activities will negatively affect water quality.

The bucket I used to collect water samples in Berlin. Photo by Hung Quach Nguyen.

After randomly choosing areas to sample from, I tied a rope to a bucket and used it to collect water samples, attracting the curiosity of people around me. Some gave me weird looks, but others knew what I was doing and asked, “Is that a water quality check?” Doing science required me to ignore the curious onlookers and focus on my bucket. Still, when I yanked the rope at the end of my last sample, my bucket disconnected and said “goodbye” to me.

In the end, the data I collected was not sufficient to prove my hypothesis, unfortunately. I only had 10 data points for each branch, which was less than the 30 data points required to establish statistical significance. Given the limit in the number of data, there was no significant difference in the phosphate and metal concentrations between two branches. 

But the LBA was still such a nice chance to contribute my knowledge to the city and find an appreciation for my temporary home. My main takeaway from this assignment was the observation of critical activity in Berlin. Each city has different activities, resulting in different environmental fingerprints. I learned that observing and recognizing those signature activities is a sign of immersion in that city. In the southern branch, I also found a lot of wastewater pipes. This was just a minor observation and didn’t affect the validity of my observational study. But I found it interesting because it was an insight that is not published on the internet. To embrace the city, you need to embrace the ugly things of that city too.