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Lee Blaney 05, 07G, doctoral student: Simple dude tackles complex problem

Lee Blaney '05, '07G

The little girl with dark, quiet eyes is wearing a bright pink dress in the photo on the research poster. She was active and cheerful that first time he saw her during a trip to West Bengal, India, recalls Lee Blaney '05, '07G.

But that's not the reason he remembers her so well.

"She was the first person introduced to me as someone who suffers from arsenic poisoning," says Blaney, who graduated this year with a master's degree in environmental engineering.

The research poster with the girl's photo was displayed in April during the Student Research and Scholarship Exhibition in honor of Alice P. Gast's inauguration as Lehigh's 13th president. It documented the sustainable technique developed by Lehigh researchers to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Much of the drinking water in West Bengal is contaminated with arsenic. Since 1997, Lehigh's civil and environmental engineering department and Bengal Engineering and Science University, led by Arup SenGupta, the P.C. Rossin Senior Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, have installed more than 170 gravity-fed well heads, which remove arsenic and provide clean, safe drinking water.

In some villages, the water contains 50 times the maximum contaminant level recommended by the World Health Organization. The girl Blaney met is one of approximately 100 million people who suffer from drinking the toxic and carcinogenic water. Although the girl had high levels of arsenic present in her hair, she displayed very few symptoms of poisoning and, since Blaney first saw her, has been drinking clean water.

"She's probably OK," Blaney says. "But I met people who suffered a lot worse."

Last November, Blaney traveled to India to oversee the installation of the environmentally safe units, made from local materials, that remove arsenic from drinking water. He also visited people suffering from arsenic poisoning and taught village leaders about the arsenic-removing units.

Blaney switched from civil engineering to environmental engineering after attending a presentation SenGupta gave to the Progressive Student Alliance about his research. He asked SenGupta if he had any work-study positions available, and initially washed test tubes for a doctoral candidate. But during his second semester as a work-study student, SenGupta asked Blaney to apply for a grant, which allowed Blaney to conduct research during his senior year.

Blaney continued working with SenGupta for two years as a graduate student following his senior year. "He's always pushing us," Blaney says.

This year, SenGupta received the Hillman Award for Excellence in Graduate Advising, partly because of nominations from his graduate students, including Blaney. "That's my going-away present," Blaney says.

One of the reasons Blaney admires SenGupta is his passion to conduct research that actually improves the lives of people.

SenGupta, Blaney says, "definitely has the technical side, but he definitely is very much driven by helping people."

Even after graduation, Blaney continues to work in the lab with SenGupta every day, tweaking the arsenic-removing units for Solemetex Inc., the company that acquired the production rights. He and SenGupta are also preparing a research article for publication.

This summer, Blaney was bound for Beijing, China, to join 20 other graduate students from colleges throughout the U.S. for the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute, a two-month fellowship sponsored by the National Science Foundation. He and a team of Chinese researchers at the Chinese Academy for Science were slated to study arsenic uptake by rice plants.

As soon as he returns from China, Blaney will fly out to the University of Texas at Austin, where he will continue to study environmental engineering as a doctoral candidate. There, he will live in a 27-person vegetarian co-op. Although he will have little time to pack for the trip, Blaney is unconcerned.

"I try to be a pretty simple dude," Blaney says. "All my possessions fit in a shoe box, all my clothes in a trash bag. The only problem is my textbooks. I have a lot of them."

-- Becky Straw

NEXT:
Alessandra Intili '06: One person at a time

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Inauguration 2007

Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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