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Kristen Jellison, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Research that matters in peoples lives

Kristen Jellison

As an environmental engineer, Kristen Jellison knows full well that while science and engineering play enormous, vital roles in advancing human knowledge, the significance of individual studies varies widely.

Jellison, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is determined that her work not be relegated to the realm of obscure, seldom-read scholarship with little meaningful impact.

"I just want to make sure that what I'm working on is going to matter," she says. "I don't want to work on something that's so esoteric that it ends up in a journal in some library where no one reads it, and I say, 'Why did I bang my head against a wall?'"

Jellison is showing Lehigh's students how to do work that matters. She co-advises Students for Sustainable Development, an umbrella organization that includes Lehigh's chapter of Engineers Without Borders as well as nonengineering majors interested in sustainability issues. Besides sponsoring campus speakers and trips to the United Nations and "green" buildings, the group is assisting Pueblo Nuevo, a village in Honduras whose water supply was devastated by 1998's Hurricane Mitch.

David Small, a Lehigh sociologist and anthropologist who had conducted archaeological digs in Pueblo Nuevo for years, relayed news of the village's plight to Jellison, who traveled there to speak with community leaders and government and medical officials about the need for clean, more plentiful water. As a result of her visit, she is helping Lehigh students in designing and building a spring box, water tank, sand filter, and chlorination system for the village.

"Our goal is to improve their water supply," Jellison says. "The students are really excited about it, and they have a lot of energy."

Even Jellison's laboratory research has the betterment of the human condition at its center. Her primary focus is the common and hardy parasite Cryptosporidium parvum, which can be fatal for people with weakened immune systems. Jellison is researching ways to reduce waterborne transmission of the parasite, which is especially troublesome for two reasons: Cryptosporidium is small, so it passes through water treatment systems without being eradicated, and it is resistant to chlorine, so it is not easily disinfected by usual means.

There is no medicinal cure; otherwise healthy people infected by it can experience gastrointestinal distress, but those with compromised immune systems, such as people with HIV, can face life-threatening symptoms. The parasite has been found all over the world. Humans, wildlife, and domesticated and agricultural animals are all hosts.

"We're studying its fate and transport in the watershed," Jellison says. "Where it's coming from, how it's moving through the watershed, and what environmental conditions impact its survival, so we can better understand what's happening to it in the environment and better design watershed management strategies to prevent exposure."

One aspect of Jellison's research is a project to determine the sources of Cryptosporidium in Philadelphia's water supply. Twice a month, the city's water department sends along filtered water samples. Jellison then extracts the DNA from it, sequences it, and compares it to the DNA of various animal species. Since there are certain host-adapted genotypes of Cryptosporidium, Jellison can offer an educated guess as to which animals may have contaminated each specific water sample with Cryptosporidium, though cross-transmission of the parasite from species to species makes complete certainty impossible.

Whether leading students to Central America to build water filters or trying to determine how to keep urban watersheds free of parasites, Jellison is sure to include a very human element in her work.

"Research can be very, very tedious, and it can be very difficult," she says. "It's a lot of work to figure out how to get an experiment to work the way you want it to and to iron out the kinks before you start producing reliable data. It can be frustrating.

"The motivation to stick with it and work through those details is to know that the end product is going to be something that benefits people."

--Thomas W. Durso

NEXT:
Todd Watkins, Associate Professor of Economics: A commitment to innovation

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Inauguration 2007

Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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