Water you talking about? Katherine Alfredo joins Real Scientists!

We are very excited to welcome our next curator, Katherine Alfredo (@KathAlfredo), a Fulbright-Nehru postdoc hosted by NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Institute) in Nagpur, India. She is also an Adjunct Scientist at Columbia University in the Columbia Water Center (CWC), USA. We asked Katherine our usual set of questions, you can read her responses below.

How did you end up in science? OH man, what a question. I always liked science and testing hypotheses, or what I thought to be true. In HS when looking at college, it was either art or science, and I ended up choosing engineering—not because I actually knew what an engineer did (I did not know a single engineer) but because it seemed difficult and everyone told me it would lead to a career. You have to understand, I grew up in Brooklyn and most people in NY are pretty obsessed with what will get you a job since, well, NY is super expensive. So I headed into Civil Engineering with the thought of being a structural engineer because I thought it could be linked with Architecture and I could work art into my career eventually. After many internships, I realized I did NOT want to be a structural engineer and was more interested in drinking water and water quality issues. I went on a research trip to Ghana after graduating and discovered geogenic contamination and started my work looking at communities with high levels of fluoride (yes, fluoride can be too high!). I felt totally ignorant regarding water chemistry and water quality, so, I went to graduate school.

In graduate school I really fell in love with being a researcher and a scientist. I received my Fulbright Student Fellowship between my Master’s and PhD and went back to Ghana and began my line of questioning regarding the boundaries between integrated water treatment technology and the community it serves. For all of my graduate career I focused on fluoride as my contaminant of choice, but I have begun to branch out since there. Getting my PhD and being a postdoc has given me such freedom to step back from my surface chemistry and aquatic chemistry dissertation research and look at water treatment in the big picture of the community. I get to ask crazy questions and go out and try to test my hypotheses – it’s pretty awesome.

Why did you choose your current field?  I love working on environmental contamination issues. I am glad my PhD is in something super technical and specific like water treatment and water chemistry because now, as a postdoc and looking at the societal issues of water treatment, my interdisciplinary studies always include technical components. I feel it is not enough to look at what a community perceives as safe water without knowing what is actually safe—and vice versa, you can’t just tell people go to this source because it is safe without knowing their thoughts and opinions.  Water quality drew me into the field, but working in and with communities is what keeps me here. I also love the academic community, teaching and working with/mentoring students.

Tell us about your work! Well, I have my hands in a lot of projects right now!
My main Fulbright-Nehru Postdoctoral research is trying to understand why rural water treatment plants fail or succeed. I have been following 11 defluoridation (fluoride treatment) water treatment plants in very rural locations of Maharashtra, India south of Nagpur (where I currently live) for the past 2 years as they were handed over from government/third party managed to community management. With my collaborator, I have investigated the willingness of communities to pay for the water (and support the treatment plant) as well as attitudes towards the utilities and the water quality for the past 2 years. 1.5 years after handover, only 2 are fully operational. So, the next round of questions explore the “why”—why do these villages support the utilities, what makes them different. Is there more fluorosis (the fluoride causing disease) in these communities.

Then, I have water perception study in West Bengal that is led by a graduate student I mentor from Columbia University (this is where I will be as I tweet). In West Bengal there is a different geogenic contaminant, arsenic, in the groundwater creating unsafe water sources. Here the questions revolve around how people perceive their water and what drives them to make certain choices about what they collect for drinking, cooking, and chai. Tied into this is the actual water quality of the water and potential arsenic exposure if we consider that not everyone is collecting all their “consumption” water from safe sources.

Finally, I do a lot of US water quality issues. I worked for a short period of time, before joining Columbia in Fall 2013, at AWWA (American Water Works Association) where I explored regulatory issues and their impact on the water utility in the United States. Some of the more exciting work that has continued from this short researcher position has been how can we compare contaminant risk across the nation and across contaminants. I try to keep abreast of hot topic issues in the US, such as lead, and not so hot but equally important issues such as a potential chlorate regulation–what would that mean for our water? Of course, I closely follow the fluoride debate in the US too.

Why should the lay public care about your work?  I think science communication is important for any scientist—but as far as my research specifically, we (as a society) take our water for granted until it is threatened by contamination, drought, etc. We feel water is a given right, like air, but unlike air it occurs in certain areas and not in others and we manipulate the availability to meet human development needs. I think every citizen should know more about their OWN water sources as well as water issues in other areas of the world. We should not have crises, like the current lead crisis in the US, driving water quality literacy or science literacy, we need to make this information more available. Also, I think it is important to connect the product to the resource. Many people turn a tap and water appears, but never think “how did it get here?” or “where did it come from?” and that should not be the case.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations? Yes.
1) I am on a Fulbright Postdoc, so I currently am living in India with my husband and 11 month old baby for a year. I am about 5 months into my Fulbright, so almost 1/2 way. Raising a baby in a foreign land AND navigating extensive fieldwork with a <1year old is not a small thing. Being a field researcher and having a family.

2) I am an avid outreach advocate. I used to run after school programs in Austin with middle school girls and love connecting with K-12 students. In the fall I plan to start an outreach program here in Nagpur with NEERI, my host institute.

3) In NYC I was involved with a group called “superhero clubhouse” that had scientist explain there research to 5th graders who then wrote mini-plays about the topics (that were then produced and acted out by real actors—it was awesome).

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

1) I LOVE biking. My husband and I love to bike. We ride mountain bikes and dream about our next tour (biking and camping for extended period of times) and how to do this with our baby.

2) I am crafty. I sew, crochet, knit, paint, make jewelery – you name it I have tried to do it! I try to do a crafty “thing” once a month for my creative-brain sanity. It has been hard here in India with a baby, but I have yarn waiting to become a sweater in my closet.

3) a FUTURE hobby (one I hope to acquire) is SCUBA diving. Just waiting for the time!

What do you do on your ideal day off? Ok – here in India: going to see some cool sights with my husband and baby. Or, when we get our bicycles here, just riding around town from small food stall to food stall tasting different food. In the US – just heading out on bikes and riding around or going for a hike. At the end of the day, settling in with a nice cold beer after a day of being outside. (Unfortunately, beer is not all that great here in India, so I can’t say I would put that on my ideal day—unless, magically, some awesome craft beer appeared!).
In either place, being outside and enjoying the day and the surrounds is key to a great day off!. Also, good food is central to this day off – cooking a nice meal at the end of the day with my family! I love to cook and having group cook events with my family makes for a great day off too.

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