Lynchburg University has received a grant from the National Science Foundation that will send a group of students to Costa Rica to study water quality.
Thomas Shahadi, professor of ecology and director of the Center for Water Quality at Lynchburg University, said he couldn’t believe it when he first got the news.
“Oh my God, I just couldn’t. I went crazy; I went crazy,” Shahadi said.
The grant is for $299,259, or nearly $100,000 each summer. Each summer, six students will travel to Costa Rica, divided into teams of three. All students will participate for free and receive a $6,000 scholarship each.
This is a 10-week program for the cohort. During the first week, Shahadi will take the students to streams in the local area and teach them the process of measuring water quality at the local level.
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They will then spend the next eight weeks in Costa Rica and return the final week for debriefing.
There will be two undergraduates, two undergraduates and two undergraduates from the Legacy Education Center, a Lynchburg-based post-secondary program that provides educational and employment opportunities for underserved students.
The goal, according to Shahadi, is for graduate students to be leaders of the group and accelerate other students.
Randy Dunton, executive director of the Legacy Education Center, said the center is excited about what it will mean for the development of the students who will participate there.
Dunton said the LEC program has a wide range of underserved students, so for them the opportunity to travel is something they may not have experienced before.
“Just the experience of traveling, learning about a new culture that’s different from your own, is going to be transformative in a lot of ways for students to think,” Dunton said.
The cohort will have the opportunity to work with Costa Rican scientists and observe their water quality research process.
The research will also support Shahadi’s project, “examining the links between surface water pollution and disease risk in Costa Rica.”
Costa Rica has one of the highest rates of stomach cancer and stomach ulcers in the world, according to Shahadi, which he attributes to water pollution.
The director of the Center for Water Quality said Costa Rica has a different water system than America. For example, in a house in Costa Rica, showers, dishwashers, and any water source other than the toilet run into the community.
Although this is only a hypothesis, Shahadi thinks it has something to do with possible contamination of drinking water mixed with other water sources in the community, as well as Helicobacter pylori – a bacteria that infects the stomach – being transmitted through contaminated water.
Student researchers will explore this idea by collecting samples by collecting water and insect samples.
Shahadi said he would like to see the students think of innovative ways to address the water quality problem in the communities there.
He hopes that the students can gain a good understanding of the water quality issues facing communities in Costa Rica, learn how to work within the community, and be somewhat of a problem solver.
“I hope they feel some sense of satisfaction that they were able to contribute to some solutions for the community,” Shahadi said.
Dunton also hopes that students in the LEC program will appreciate the opportunities they have in life.
“We all need a dose of humility that comes our way when we realize, hey, there are other people who have a lot of needs and who are less fortunate than us, and they’re going to see that firsthand,” Dunton said .