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Grant to allow graduate students to research water quantity and quality improvement

RIVERSIDE, Calif. Water is likely to become an even more important factor in determining human well-being in the near future as the world's population continues to increase. While it is clear that the demand for water will steadily rise, it also appears that water supply could decline as a result of major shifts in the world's climate.

To address and anticipate pressing questions on water quantity and quality issues and train the next generation of "water scholars," the One Health Center at the University of California, Riverside has received a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Formally called Water SENSE IGERT (SENSE is an acronym for Social, Engineering, and Natural Sciences Engagement), the training grant will allow graduate students from vastly disparate disciplines to conduct doctoral-level research on water quantity and quality.

Starting this fall, six or seven graduate students will receive fellowships for two years from the Water SENSE IGERT program, and another six or seven students will receive fellowships in the second and third years of the grant. Slightly fewer students will receive the fellowships in the fourth year of the grant. Each fellowship is accompanied by an annual stipend of approximately $30,000.

The fellows will obtain training in interdisciplinary research on water issues as well as preparation for leadership positions in government and private and nonprofit organizations aimed at improving community health and child development outcomes related to water.

"We expect our fellows will gain substantive interdisciplinary knowledge that allows them to understand and engage in technical problems, direct project teams, communicate their knowledge, advise policy makers and raise public awareness of water-related issues," said Peter Atkinson, the director of the Center for Disease Vector Research and the grant's principal investigator.

The training will prepare the students in all aspects of water and waterborne disease management while still concentrating in their primary area of study. Each student will be enrolled in one of the social, natural or engineering sciences sciences that contribute to our understanding of the issues surrounding water quantity and quality. The major themes of their research projects will be public education; water policy, management and economics; waterborne contaminants; vector disease control; and water treatment and remediation.

The training grant was submitted by a team of five faculty members from the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences; the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and the Bourns College of Engineering. Besides Atkinson, Anil Deolalikar, a professor of economics; Mary Gauvain, a professor of psychology; Sharon Walker, an associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering; and Marylynn Yates, a professor of environmental microbiology and the dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, are members of the team. Fifteen additional faculty members at UCR will serve as collaborators on the grant.

Because the grant involves faculty and students from three different colleges, the Water SENSE IGERT fellows will take common water-related courses and seminars in their second and third years in the interdisciplinary soon-to-be-launched UCR School of Public Policy (SPP). The SPP will also serve as a useful pipeline for recruiting future students into the Water SENSE IGERT program.

Initially, the water scholars will work on projects within Southern California where water-related issues need urgent attention. Future projects will address water-related research questions in other regions of the state and the world, with emphasis on building existing partnerships in eastern Africa and south Asia.

"We will use a very interdisciplinary and problem-based approach to train the next generation of water professionals and leaders in the supply, utilization, conservation, management and treatment of water in order to maximize well-being and development," said Atkinson, a professor of entomology.

Working closely with faculty, the students will integrate expertise on water from a range of disciplines, including microbiology, entomology, environmental engineering, economics, public policy, psychology, sociology, political science, education, and anthropology to develop practical, cost-effective and sustainable solutions to improve the quantity and quality of water available and the appropriate utilization of this water.

The students will also learn that understanding the ways in which people are involved with water and with technology related to water use has the potential to enhance the effectiveness of any water project that directly impinges on human activity.

"Social and cultural practices provide children and adults with experience using water," explained Gauvain, whose work focuses on the development of cognitive skills. "These practices include information about where to find water, how to assess if the water is safe to drink or use in other ways, and what to do if the water that needs to be used appears unsafe. Our fellows will learn about these social and cultural practices and how to study them because any water-related project that involves changes to human behavior needs to be attentive to how people think about and engage with water in their community."

Atkinson, whose research focuses on developing genetic strategies for controlling insect pests, is enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary nature of the research projects the water scholars will engage in.

"The fact that this is also a training grant is especially exciting to us," he said. "Such grants typically attract excellent students into doing high-quality, high-impact research. Further, three UCR colleges are joining forces to tackle head-on what promises to be a contentious topic internationally in the next 20 years, when water will be more precious than oil."


Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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