Water-related illnesses are a leading cause of death in the world, especially among children. According to the World Health Organization, about 1.5 million children under five years old die each year from diarrhea alone, and most of these cases result from the consumption of contaminated water.
Researchers everywhere, including scientists and engineers at Lehigh, are seeking solutions to the problem of unclean drinking water.
Elizabeth Wolyniak DiCesare ‘11G, who earned a Ph.D. in earth and environmental sciences, recently received an international award for the study of one organism that contaminates drinking water.
DiCesare received a 2012 Academic Achievement Award from the American Water Works Association (AWWA), winning second place in the doctoral dissertation category for her thesis, “Impact of biofilm and other environmental factors on the fate and transport of Cryptosporidium oocysts.”
The AWWA, an international nonprofit founded in 1881, works to improve water quality and reduce the number of deaths and illnesses caused by waterborne pathogens, which is one of DiCesare’s goals.
A resistant parasite
Like most waterborne pathogens, Cryptosporidium, causes a gastrointestinal illness, in this case, cryptosporidiosis, which has no medical cure and can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.
Cryptosporidium, a parasite, is particularly difficult to eradicate, says DiCesare.
“Cryptosporidium is small enough that it can pass through filtration systems in water treatment plants, and it’s also resistant to chlorine,” she says. “These are the two methods that are most commonly used to treat water in the United States.”
In her dissertation research, DiCesare looked at how Cryptosporidium is affected by factors like ultraviolet light, or solar radiation. UV light often inactivates Cryptosporidium while it is suspended in water. But biofilms—the slimy coating often found on rocks near water sources—can protect Cryptosporidium from UV rays.
DiCesare sought to determine the capacity of biofilms to protect Cryptosporidium from solar radiation and other environmental factors. Because biofilms had not often been studied in this way, she spent much time developing new methods to cull information from biofilm samples.
The benefit of varying viewpoints
She had the opportunity to work with advisers with different areas of expertise—Bruce Hargreaves, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Kristen Jellison, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.
“Elizabeth has the right combination of flexibility and persistence,” says Hargreaves. “She is willing to try new things, and she’s really well organized.”
Having advisers with different points of view made problem-solving easier, says DiCesare.
“Prof. Hargreaves came from a more ecological, environmental standpoint, whereas Prof. Jellison came from the engineering standpoint. That really helped me get through some of the problems I encountered.”