Celebrating Hogwarts Back to School in Newport Aquarium’s “Potion” Lab

September 1, 2017 marks nearly two decades from the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where a grown-up Harry Potter sees his own children off to Hogwarts.

In honor of little witches and wizards heading back to Hogwarts today, Newport Aquarium Water Quality Specialist, Cameo VonStrohe shares some “potions” she creates to analyze the water chemistry at the Newport Aquarium.


“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses.”

— Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone


Just as potions are important in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, chemistry, science, and water quality are important here at Newport Aquarium. Now, from our own Harry Potter fan, and “Water Wizard,” here’s a look at how everyday chemistry works in the potions water lab.

Hello. I am Cameo VonStrohe, the Water Quality Specialist for the Newport Aquarium. Thanks for joining me today. I thought I’d share some potions – that’s reagents for you muggles.test tubes

But first, let’s talk about the nitrogen cycle and why testing is important.

Ammonia produced by the fish in their waste, uneaten food, and decaying plant matter all contribute to ammonia levels which is quite toxic to fish (think cruciatus curse or worse).

However, there are necessary, beneficial bacteria living in the tanks that convert the ammonia (NH3) to a less toxic form of nitrogen, nitrite (NO2), and then to an even less toxic form, nitrate (NO3).  With proper filtration/life support systems and maintenance by our biologists and engineers, the bacteria is kept in check.  To ensure all these components are working properly and the fishes’ environment is healthy, I run a gamut of tests.  NH3, NO2, and NO3 are three of my top five tests performed a minimum of once a week on every tank in the aquarium and including our Offsite Animal Health Facility.

Time for Potions:

One ingredient in the ammonia test set-up is alkaline citrate, which I’m currently running low on.  So first, you need to don PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) including robes lab coat, goggles, and gloves.  Safety first!  Review your recipe and prep your lab bench with the supplies.

Potions Day

“Potions Day” is my favorite day in the lab!

The dry chemicals are weighed out on a scale and distilled water is measured in a volumetric flask – precision matters.

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Add a magnetic stir bar to the “glass cauldron” and place the beaker on a stirrer plate.  Mix to dissolve and like magic, the solution turns from milky white to clear.  Now the reagent is ready and it’s time to tidy up the laboratory.

ALWAYS keep your lab space clean and organized and you will have a very content Professor Snape.

Preparing the samples for testing:

sample bottles

To the right of the sample bottles are smaller containers called “cuvettes,” with the pink tinted coloring. These are for the nitrite testing.

The red test tube rack holds samples for the ammonia test.  Both of these will be tested on a spectrophotometer located in the fume hood.

spectrophotometer

The spectrophotometer (on the left) is a scientific instrument that measures the absorbance of light at specific wavelengths.

For each test, light (Lumos!) is passed through the sample where the amount of light absorbed/how much is transmitted is measured.  The machine puts a value to that measure and this is the data that I review.

Reviewing data

Reviewing test data for a new, improved nitrate test option.

For the Hermione types out there, you probably are curious as to the other two tests in the Top 5…These are salinity (tested with a refractometer) and pH (tested on a benchtop meter). Both are also highly important parameters to maintain for fish health and we can discuss those next time.

Thanks for letting me have a little fun with this post and joining me in the lab.  I wish you all a great school year!

#Hufflepuff

 

 

 

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