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The “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student: Blog Action Day Edition

Editor’s Note: Today is Blog Action Day, a annual internet event in which bloggers are encouraged to blog about an issue with the hopes of raising awareness and broadening discussion about that issue. This year’s issue is water, and our blog brings you two different posts on water issues from our regular contributors. Our first post is from writer Laura Stephenson, for her series The “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student, telling stories of the careers and activities of environmental studies students after graduation.

Erin Printy

Installing a water filter in Cambodia

As an undergrad at the University of Mary Washington, Erin Printy studied biology with an environmental focus. Since graduation, she has had a very active life. Erin has worked at a drinking water plant, gone to one of the country’s best public health schools, worked at two outdoor stores, and has participated in drinking water projects in Cambodia and Vietnam. She was also my neighbor for a short while in Carrboro, NC, and has a garden that rivals my own.  Here’s her story.

After undergrad, Erin worked at REI in northern Virginia for around two and a half years. During that time, she began looking for jobs that would let her use her degree in Biology.  After an extensive internet search, she found an interesting position at the Fairfax County Water Authority (FCWA). She was hired as a plant operator, with duties ranging from working in the lab and testing water to driving a very large dump truck. Erin enjoyed her time there, but after a year and a half of doing shift work she began thinking about graduate school.  Her time at FCWA emphasized her interests in environmental health, which led her to apply to UNC’s School of Public Health Environmental Sciences and Engineering program. Erin was accepted, and began her time at UNC in 2005.

According to Erin, many people in the sciences apply to graduate school because they find a research professor they want to work with. This wasn’t the case for Erin, but in her second semester she took an Environmental Microbiology class with Dr. Mark Sobsey. The class changed everything for Erin. Erin learned of Dr. Sobsey’s work on drinking water in developing countries, and picked up on Dr. Sobsey’s passion about the idea of this kind of work as well.

Dr. Sobsey became a mentor for Erin, as well as her thesis advisor. A company based in Switzerland was interested in microbiological testing of a new product called the Lifestraw, and through Dr. Sobsey’s contacts, Erin took this on as her thesis work. The Lifestraw is a small, easy-to-carry water filter designed for people in developing countries where the nearest water sources are seldom safe to drink. Relatively cheap and easy to distribute, the Lifestraw actually resembles a thick straw and a user sips water through the straw. The straw contains a sophisticated filter that cleans the water before it reaches the user’s mouth. Erin’s part of the project was to help carry out microbiological tests on these straws, meaning that she had to come up with the methods for mimicking environmental conditions to measure the effectiveness of the Lifestraw. In order to do this, Erin used settled sewage sludge from a local water treatment plant, as well as a lively concoction of parasites, viruses, and bacteria grown in the lab. Then she measured what came out on the other end of the straw. The microbiological testing that Erin performed for her thesis is the kind of work that needs to be done on such new products before they can be used and distributed. Erin was able to perform research toward her thesis while helping to develop a product that could make people’s lives in developing countries much healthier and safer.

After she completed her thesis, Dr. Sobsey offered Erin a job as a project manager for a randomized controlled trial on a drinking water filter called Hydraid in Cambodia, Ghana, or Honduras. Funded by International Aid, Hydraid provides a plastic alternative to concrete biosand filters.  Erin decided to go to Cambodia and packed her bags for a year abroad. She didn’t have any previous experience managing a project of this nature, but Dr. Sobsey felt confident in her abilities.

At the beginning of the study, the laboratory part of the group collected water quality information from the surrounding villages’ source water as well as the water people were actually drinking. Meanwhile, the field group collected interviews with locals about hygiene, water quality and diarrheal disease. At the conclusion of the study, there was a significant rate in diarrheal disease reduction for people who used the filters versus people that did not use the filter. While the Cambodian portion of this three-part study is over, Hydraid filters are still being handed out in Honduras and  Ghana, as well as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. According to the World Health Organization,  nearly 2.2 million people each year die from unsafe drinking water. Microbiological work that Erin and other like her have conducted is a crucial part of addressing the problem of unsafe drinking water.

A family with a Hydraid water filter in Cambodia

After Cambodia, Erin accepted another job from Dr. Sobsey in January of 2009 in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam. For this project, funded by USAID, Erin was hired to perform a post implementation assessment with an organization called East Meets West. East Meets West operates in Vietnam to install pipelines and latrines in villages. According to their website, “Once the community is fully informed and engaged, the work begins. EMW digs the wells, builds a water tower, installs filtration, aeration and chlorination systems where needed, and runs the distribution pipeline through the village. The villagers have to dig the trenches to lay the pipe.” This kind of international aid work is unique–East Meets West workers depend on and work with the communities they are helping. For Erin’s part of this project, she went throughout HCMC to find materials to build a laboratory, and hired and trained people to conduct testing similar to that in Cambodia. This was also one small project in a much larger project, called WaterSHED, that UNC was engaged in with USAID in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Now, Erin is working at Carrboro’s favorite outdoor gear store–Townsend Bertram and Co.–while also gearing up for more work in the international drinking water scene. Her advice to me–“Be open to doing different things with your degree,” which is something Erin has certainly done. She also advised me to be “Patient, but not complacent,” meaning that you should be excited and passionate about your current situation.

Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.

Posted on: October 15, 2010, 11:41 am Category: The "After" Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , , , ,

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  1. Thanks for sharing information about environmental disease. The information can bring awareness to many health conscious individuals like me. I leaned many things from your studies. I am also sharing facts about environmental diseases, and this articles can give me ideas about the common and rare environmental diseases.

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