Researchers to Use Grant to Improve Water in Tanzania

Professors and students hope to create portable device that could test for contaminants immediately, reports The Daily Bruin.

By Bailey West for The Daily Bruin
Oct. 16, 2009

CHRISTINE LEE has a passion for the environment and public health. As a result, she became personally invested in a project dedicated to solving water quality issues in Dar es Salaam, a region in Tanzania.

Lee and her research team at UCLA were endowed with a $10,000 grant to further their research in rapid microbial detection technology.

In simpler terms, their goal is to produce a portable device that will test drinking water for contaminants and provide results almost immediately.

"It is really upsetting that there are still so many people who don't have access to clean water," said Lee, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering and a student researcher.

The grant came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's annual P3 awards, a student design competition focusing on people, prosperity and the planet.

The main focus of the P3 competition is sustainability. Therefore, this aspect played a major role in the researchers' plans.

One strategy is finding easy ways to treat water, but sometimes the treatment process may be unnecessary, Lee said.

"To be economical, our project can determine if the water needs to be treated at all," she said.

The research team was led by Jennifer Jay, a professor in civil and environmental engineering, and also included Alexandria Boehm, an assistant professor at Stanford and Kathryn Mika, a civil and environmental engineering graduate student.

The grant money will be used to further research their method, both in UCLA labs and in Tanzania, Lee said.

"We must rigorously test this tool before we encourage others to use it," she said.

Lee added that the problem of water quality should resonate with UCLA students.

"The same issues that exacerbate water supply and scarcity in developing areas are the same issues that will continue to make things more and more difficult to deal with for us (in Southern California)," she said.

However, the project does not end with simply testing water quality: Educating the local community in Dar es Salaam is another key aspect.

"Our aim is to use the collected information from the rapid tool to show that global hygiene can be used. We're working on this from an educational as well as technological standpoint," Lee said.

The group's hypothesis predicted that community members would feel more connected to their own health-related behavior when they can see and understand results in near-real time.

Cassandra Tesch, an African studies graduate student and the co-chair of the African Activist Association, also has a personal connection to this project: She has lived in Tanzania.

"Why should we not care? We can't survive without water. Everybody has the right to have access to water, proper living conditions and sanitation," she said.

She proposed a question relating to water quality and countless other issues: If we have the knowledge and don't help, who will?

The African Activist Association focuses on disseminating alternative views of Africa, ones that may not be portrayed in the popular media, Tesch said.

"Africa is a continent, but often, that's not how it is discussed. Every country is so drastically different," she said.

Even beyond simply knowing an issue, like water quality, Tesch encouraged students to learn about the people, culture and history of issues as well.

"There's a tendency for people to go to Africa to 'save' people without fully understanding the politics, history and culture of the people they're helping," Tesch said. "We need to be conscious of what we're doing wherever we go."

Published: Thursday, October 22, 2009