Integrated Human Practices
We began integrating the needs of the Community into our project early in its development through the feedback and advice we received from Dr. Sanjib Bhattacharyya, Laboratory Director at the City of Milwaukee Health Department. Dr. Bhattacharyya stressed the importance of having quick and cheap methods to test for E. coli contamination in water that allows for an initial assessment of the water's purity to be made. In an effort to continue to receive feedback from the local community we presented our initial project plan and concept at the Milwaukee area Undergraduate Biological Research Conference (MUBRC). After receiving this feedback our team visited the Lodi Waste Treatment Plant in Lodi, WI where we received new insights on how we could apply our project in society. Finally, we reached out to a humanitarian worker who has traveled to India to learn how we could best apply our project in developing countries.
Milwaukee Public Health Department
Early in the development of our project, we interviewed Dr. Sanjib Bhattacharyya, laboratory director at the City of Milwaukee Health Department in order to better understand some of the difficulties with current water testing methods and the potential application of our product in the realm of Public Health.
Through this interview, we learned that the current methods for water safety testing involve overnight culture and colony counts, and in some cases Next Gen sequencing methods to analyze the composition of various water samples. While these methods are both reliable, and specific (in the case of Next Gen Sequencing), Dr. Bhattacharyya expressed that the time constraints or costs associated with these methods are significant limiting factors for the work of Public Health.
One example given was of testing the safety of various recreational water sources such as beaches. According to Dr. Bhattacharyya, part of the work of Public Health in Milwaukee is to determine whether the many beaches surrounding the city are safe for use by the public. Unfortunately, the most commonly used method in their lab (culture and colony count) takes upwards of 12 hours for a definitive answer that would allow them to shut down an unsafe water source, during which time members of the public could be exposed to dangerous pathogens.
Dr. Bhattacharrya expressed interest in a method that would allow his team to significantly cut down testing times, or provide enough information in the short term to allow a judgement call regarding a particular water source. However, he did make it clear that specificity to fecal coliform bacteria or indicator species would be vital, and that being cost effective and simple to use would be requirements if we ever wanted to provide a usable product, or bring our method to market.
This interview allowed us to view our product in a new light: What if we marketed our test to Public Health departments as a preliminary test method to help make necessary fast decisions while waiting on other results.
As a way to gain feedback regarding our project, we presented our initial project plan and concept at the first annual Milwaukee Undergraduate Biological Research Conference. Our involvement was not strictly limited to presenting our work as the WLC-iGEM team also played a role in organizing and facilitating the conference.
Overall, we gained valuable feedback from other collegiate researchers and their PIs, with some questions being raised about the single-use nature of our test kit, and ways we could either recycle, or reduce the waste produced by our kit. Finally, we were also encouraged to examine ways we could market or provide our test kit to at risk communities in need.
Lodi Waste Treatment Plant
During the start of the fall semester, we were able to visit a small town water treatment facility located in Lodi, Wisconsin. Over the course of the visit we gained a greater appreciation for the work of water treatment operators and learned about the procedures used on a daily basis to ensure effluent safety.
One interesting facet of waste treatment and effluent testing that we hadn’t previously understood was the regular use of overnight culturing and colony counting to determine the effectiveness of sterilization equipment. The facility in Lodi uses UV sterilization to ensure safety of their effluent, but they estimate the cleanliness of the UV bulbs in their system and clean them based on how many colonies under a certain threshold grow on overnight assays.
We saw this as an interesting new application of our product that the plant operator seemed intrigued by: what about using our system not necessarily as a definitive test, but as a diagnostic for when a sterilization system needs cleaning or maintenance.
Humanitarian Worker Interview
In an effort to better understand the application of our test kit in developing countries, we talked with Stacy Wright, a member of a team from Friends Church in Southern California that travels to India to aid educational institutes, provide medical assistance, and empower communities in rural India.
What we learned from this experience is that while a quick test kit may be well received in better developed areas, members of these educational teams are more concerned with basic sanitation education and sanitation services in rural communities. It was made clear that members of these disadvantaged communities are generally concerned with fulfilling their basic needs and that confirming their water supply is clean is not as important as simply acquiring water.
This raised some questions for us as a team; if we are able to develop a working kit, how could we provide the kit free of charge to rural communities in a way that addressed a current need and would be easy to use?
While we don’t have a perfect answer to this question, we have looked into working with donors to sponsor sending test kits with teams such as the one Mrs. Wright is involved with to distribute and educate community members on test operation as an extension to current work in sanitation education.
Doing Our Part!
Emily, Jack, and Harrison have had the opportunity over the summer and autumn to work on various aquatic habitat analysis projects and water health analysis. This involvement has impacted our work as we’ve seen the day to day need for a compact, mobile test kit in ecological research as a method for detecting contamination in bodies of water. Additionally, the ability to quickly quantify bacterial load in a water way provides a good indication of overall pollution levels that would otherwise have taken much longer to assess.