May 15, 2016 – The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has attracted scientists from across the nation, most notably Virginia Tech’s Professor Marc Edwards. He and the Virginia Tech Flint Water Study Team have been sending water testing kits, analyzing data, and issuing reports about the threat to public health from high lead and bacteria levels.
Sophomore Maggie Carolan of Stafford, Virginia, is advocating for the health of Flint residents. Carolan, a double major in geography and water: resources, policy, and management, joined the team as a participant in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program in summer 2015 and continued pursuing research for honors credit during fall 2015. “I’m able to work with insightful research-minded people who are always thinking about questions that we need to ask in the face of ongoing problems, like what’s going on in Flint,” she said.
She assisted in the assembly of water testing kits, sent letters to Flint residents, processed samples, and participated in a presentation broadcast live from campus in January. In March, she served as a student leader for a spring break trip to Flint to collect and test water samples from residents’ homes (see more at www.vt.edu/flintwater).
“Everyone cares. I’ve seen everyone on my team emotionally drained from our involvement in Flint. It’s so important to so many people,” Carolan stressed. “Just being able to experience this and have that kind of role in someone’s life is incredible. This is something I’ll always look back on and think, ‘I was someone who helped expose the problem to the public through the Flint Water Study.’”
During freshman year, Carolan worked with the Network Dynamics & Simulation Science Laboratory, translating data sets from Spanish to English for global population modeling, to be used in public health response inspired by the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015. In addition to her work with on the water team, she now works as an undergraduate research assistant under Marc Edwards and is completing a research fellowship with a graduate student mentor in civil and environmental engineering, thanks to financial support from the Sustainable Water Undergraduate Research Fund, established by alumnus Jeff Rudd.
“I’m doing a project on rainwater harvesting system design and essentially characterizing the entire physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of rainwater harvesting systems,” she said. “We have complete control over the rainwater system of a home in Radford that’s completely supplied by rainwater, so we’ve been sampling intensively there to understand water quality and how water quality is affected by climate and the environment.”
Carolan enrolled in the new water: resources, policy, and management degree program to give her a unified framework for protecting public health through the lens of water. “When I came to Virginia Tech and found out about the water degree, I found that what was missing from my conversations on public health was the importance of water and sanitation for health in a global context,” she explained. The degree’s interdisciplinary coursework provides a unique combination of classes in science, engineering, and policy that Carolan finds important in preparing herself for current and future challenges in water infrastructure and quality, as seen in Flint, Michigan.