Skeletal fluorosis in India was the subject of a research trip by a University of Oklahoma Ph.D. fellow in Environmental Science and a master’s student in Public Health and Industrial Hygiene.
In December 2010, Laura Brunson was awarded the T.H. Lee Williams International Travel Scholarship from the OU Graduate College. The award made it possible for her to travel to Nagpur, India, where she presented research at an international water conference.
Brunson is a Ph.D. student in Environmental Science at OU’s Norman campus. She also is an EPA STAR fellow and a Robert Hughes Centennial fellow. Brunson was accompanied on this trip by Aimee Barrett, a Master’s student in Public Health and Industrial Hygiene at OU’s Health Sciences campus in Oklahoma City.
Together, the women represented OU’s WaTER Center. They traveled to India in January during the holiday break where they spent several weeks learning more about water quality and fluoride issues.
During this time they met with many researchers at the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute of India (NEERI), visited water treatment facilities in several communities, met with people struggling with the effects of consuming elevated fluoride concentrations (dental and skeletal fluorosis), visited a community managed water treatment system, and asked many questions. Both agreed it was helpful to have both a student from engineering and a student from public health on the trip because each offered a different perspective on the water issues being studied and each had a different set of questions and interests.
The joint effort allowed both to gain more insight from the trip.
Brunson said that although most of the research focused on fluoride removal, researchers also take into account the role of nutrition. For future research and collaboration, researchers now are looking at involving someone from the medical perspective such as a doctor or nurse.
“I found the trip very informative and culturally enriching,” Barrett said. “The exposure to knowledgeable researchers and innovative approaches to water issues provided essential applied knowledge necessary for tackling real-world problems affecting people around the world. As a student and future professional, it has given me something to aspire towards."
Brunson and Barrett gained helpful knowledge for their current graduate research and were inspired by the people they visited with to continue moving forward with future research ideas. Both graduate students are considering ways to facilitate further collaborations between engineering and public health at OU.
Towards the end of the visit Barrett returned to OU for a work event and Brunson attended the International Conference on Sustainable Water Resource Management and Treatment Technologies.
The opportunity to present at the conference came about after a drinking water research trip to Ethiopia in 2010. During that trip, Brunson and her advisor, Dr. David Sabatini, met Pawan Labhasetwar, director of the Water Technology and Management division at NEER. Dr. Labhasetwar is also conducting extensive research on fluoride mitigation and encouraged Brunson and Sabatini to submit an abstract for the conference in India. The conference was attended by over 300 delegates representing 17 countries.
At the conference Brunson presented research conducted under the umbrella of the OU WaTER Center titled, “Innovative and Sustainable Technologies for Treatment of Drinking Water with Elevated Fluoride Concentrations” and co-chaired a presentation session. The international conference offered increased exposure for the work being conducted at OU and a great opportunity for Brunson to network with and learn from many researchers and practitioners.
“The opportunity to learn from and connect with researchers working on water issues from all around India was amazing!” Brunson said. Brunson’s research focuses on sustainable methods for fluoride removal from drinking water and social entrepreneurial methods of implementing water treatment solutions in developing regions.
Additional funding for this trip was generously provided by the College of Engineering, the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and the WaTER Center. Barrett's research focus is bacterial contamination in point of use drinking water in developing regions and she looks forward to working on international public health issues in the future.