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Collaboration Is Key to Tackling Drinking Water Challenges

ELISS water forum breakout sessions


ELISS fellows and drinking water experts come together to explore next steps at the December forum on improving drinking water safety. | Renske Erion/ELISS

A recent forum on well water safety that included scholars, policymakers and practitioners in the field at both local and national levels was not only a chance for experts on drinking water policy and management to brainstorm solutions for their shared challenges. It also provided the 17 graduate students who organized the forum an opportunity to learn collaboratively and to serve their communities.

“Drinking Water in the US: Improving Well Water Safety,” hosted at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, was the final event organized by the 2016 graduate student fellows of Emerging Leaders in Science and Society (ELISS). The program brought together graduate students studying a range of subjects at five different universities — University of Washington, Purdue University, University of California-Irvine, Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — for 15-months  to devise ways to investigate and improve the safety and sustainability of drinking water.

With drought, aging infrastructure and contamination concerns – such as the still-unresolved lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich. – affecting access to safe, clean drinking water for many Americans, ELISS advisers tasked the graduate student fellows with addressing the topic.

The fellows quickly identified experts and stakeholders in their communities and investigated the region’s most pressing environmental, social and economic concerns related to drinking water. They found unique approaches to challenges in each region.

For the Southern Californians, the most significant challenge was maintaining a water system resilient enough to meet the needs of a growing population in drought conditions. The Washington state group explored water contaminants, which can enter the drinking supply from the runoff of rain on the roads. The teams in Indiana and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina addressed the regulation – or lack thereof – of privately owned wells.

About 13 million households in the United States get their water from private wells, according to Cliff Treyens, director of public outreach at the National Ground Water Association and a speaker at the forum. Yet no regulations set standards to establish the quality of that water.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for drinking water quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which does not cover private wells, said speaker Holly Green, the chief of the prevention branch in EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. This leaves the onus for testing and treating well water for contaminants – which can be costly and technical – on home owners with private wells.

“Once we started digging a little bit more into private well issues in the Triangle, we started finding that this was an underrepresented issue,” said Kasia Grzebyk, a Ph.D. student studying environmental science and engineering at the University of North Carolina and the only fellow with a background in water issues.

ELISS 2016 water forum


The 2016 class of ELISS fellows and staffers | ELISS

Founder and director of ELISS Melanie Roberts praised the fellows for their efforts to map the local drinking water system before choosing forum topics, to ensure they addressed the issues of greatest need, quoting a statement commonly attributed to Albert Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Roberts said of the fellows, “Systems thinking was one of our learning goals for fellows. This approach required them to think about how all the pieces fit together and how to create value for everyone.”

After much preparation, the fellows presented events in each region and the final forum at AAAS in December to gather representatives from each region with representatives working at a federal level. The December forum gave water quality professionals a place to share concerns and best practices, and platform to collaborate on solutions. Fellows facilitated breakout sessions to explore the steps needed to achieve goals like establishing required limits for new contaminants and improving health outcomes by improving water quality. Participants concluded that existing resources need to be tapped – particularly data – from across the fields of hydrology, geology and epidemiology.

Evan Kane, a hydrogeologist in North Carolina, found that participating in the forum affirmed the steps his county is taking to boost the rate of water testing and treatment by private well owners, such as ongoing outreach and tracking of outcomes. Kane works for the private well program at the Department of Environmental Services of Wake County, where about 140,000 people rely on well water.

The forum’s focus on interdisciplinary solutions echoed the ELISS model, which brings together graduate students in a range of fields.

“We look for students who are open to exploring new issues,” Roberts said. After all, she added, “collaborative learning works better when people bring a range of perspectives, experiences, and questions rather than a predetermined ‘solution’ or agenda.” 

Fellows learned from experts in the field, which was a different approach to learning than much of their graduate research. For fellow Shaili Jha, a Ph.D. student in neurobiology at the University of North Carolina, her first instinct to learn more about water issues was to consult the literature on scholarly websites like PubMed.

“I realized, in the end, that the most useful things I learned were from talking to people, as well as from  the other fellows about what they learned,” Jha said.

Kane said, “I thought it was interesting that graduate students in fields that are normally fairly removed from the work we are doing with private well users were devoting their time and talent to advancing thoughts on this particular topic.” The fellows are “tackling these real-world problems and applying their education and their intellect to societal problems,” he added.

Roberts said examining real-world problems is what defines the task of ELISS fellows. “They’re really going outside the walls of the university and talking to people who are in the position to put science into action,” Roberts added.

Fellows also bring new skills gained from ELISS back to their graduate research – and to their future careers.

“Obviously collaboration is something we really want to encourage within science, because that’s where the most cutting-edge research gets done,” said Andrew George, a Ph.D. candidate in biology at Duke University. “It was surprising how much more effective I could be” with the project management, communication and networking skills that ELISS cultivates, he noted.

ELISS has afforded Grzebyk the opportunity to develop a breadth of skills to complement the deep expertise she is gaining through her Ph.D.  “I’m going to be much more confident going out into the work force knowing that not only am I an expert in water quality engineering, but I'm also quite accomplished as a leader, communicator, and facilitator of collaborative engagements – all skills that I gained from participating in ELISS,” Grzebyk said.

The fellows are currently synthesizing their findings in reports to be distributed to stakeholders this month, bringing to a close the third year of the three-year AAAS pilot program. The program will be reviewed in 2017 and further information will be made available to prospective fellows via the program’s website, Roberts said.

“My hope is that what we’ve learned in the last few years can impact even more graduate students,” Roberts added. 


Andrea Korte

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