Carnegie Mellon University
October 23, 2013

CEE Senior Travels to South Africa to Develop Water Treatment Technologies

CEE Senior Travels to South Africa to Develop Water Treatment Technologies
CEE senior Corinne Clinch (BS CEE ’14, BS BME ’14) spent her summer developing inexpensive water treatment technologies in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Recently, we caught up with Corinne to hear about her summer experience. 

CEE: What did you do over the summer?

Corinne: I went to rural South Africa on a Research Experience for Undergraduates from the NSF. The University of Virginia sponsored work with the local University of Venda to do field and lab research on technologies for improving water quality in developing countries. Five other college students around the U.S., our graduate mentors, and I lived and worked together. We regularly collected local water samples and tested them before and after the effects of our water treatment technologies.

CEE: Tell us more about the water treatment technologies you investigated.

Corinne: I personally researched paper imbibed with silver and copper nanoparticles. The silver papers were made simply by soaking them in a silver and glucose solution and then microwaving until dry. These papers can be used like coffee filters to remove unwanted particles from dirty water, but the nanoparticles also kill bacteria living in the water. Thus the filters have physical and biological cleaning properties. Dirty, contaminated water goes through the filter and becomes cleaner and safer drinking water. This was proven by my mentor’s (Teri Dankovich) doctoral thesis, and our work was expanding on this information to find more applied answers. How much water can this filter clean? How clean does it make the water? What could interfere with this cleaning process?

CEE: How did you get involved in this research project?

Corinne: I saw an e-mail from Professor Kelvin Gregory to the CEE students about a paid research opportunity in South Africa. I applied in December and was accepted early in the spring semester. We had almost weekly preparation meetings to get us informed and ready to travel.

CEE: With whom were you working?

Corinne: Pure Madi is the non-profit working in South Africa to improve water quality. UVA Professor Jim Smith, PhD is the primary investigator. The University of Venda (UNIVEN) is where we worked with local students and professors to conduct research. My research was led by Theresa (Teri) Dankovich, PhD, and the NSF REU funded my project.

CEE: What was your favorite part of this research experience?

Corinne: I think my favorite part of the research is my current opportunity to continue working with my post-doctoral mentor. She’s still pursuing research and publishing results about the nanoparticle filters while I’m starting a BME senior design project for creating an apparatus that will hold these filters for use in developing countries. (I’m also a BME double major.) I’m excited that I can independently continue working toward the goal of providing clean water with the skill set I have developed since coming to CMU.

CEE: How has this experience influenced your career goals?

Corinne: I have been interested in humanitarian aid and international development since high school, but I feel like I learned so much more about how aid is implemented from the most basic research to delivery. I also see a lot of room for improvement in this process, so I’ve been convinced to further my education in the field of global health. I hope to continue graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, especially in the Behavioral and Community Health Sciences department. I’m interested in possibly becoming a Fulbright Scholar and continuing to engineer health solutions from the US.

CEE: What CEE classes or faculty helped prepare you for this research? 

Corinne: Greg Lowry’s Environmental Engineering course helped me understand the applied chemistry before I went. Having lab experience from Professor Dzombak’s Environmental Engineering Lab was also essential. My CEE advisor Mario Bergés wrote me a recommendation, and the selection committee at UVA said this was a very high priority in their judgement of applications.

CEE: What skills did you pick up or develop in this experience?

Corinne: I developed a more mature perspective on the inherent potential of developing countries. I learned repeatedly how one’s own ideas and initial approach to solving a problem can easily be misguided and sometimes even counterproductive. Patiently understanding the larger picture and its context is the only way to start finding the right answers.

My main personal accomplishment was learning how to drive in a developing country and on the left side of the road! It was both scarier and easier than I expected.
I certainly developed a better understanding of lab and field research techniques such as membrane filtration, field sample collection, data management, and sterile lab procedures. 

CEE: What was the most surprising or interesting part about living in South Africa? 

Corinne: This was my first time in South Africa, and the nature there is absolutely astounding. I spent the summer of 2012 in Ghana (West Africa), so this wasn’t my first intense international experience, but I was always impressed with the wildlife and landscapes in South Africa. I saw lions, cheetahs, zebras, wildebeest, water buffalo, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, hippos, elephants, and warthogs. Watching their interactions and mannerisms is just fascinating.

Read more about Corinne’s summer experience in South Africa on her personal blog