Nishad Jayasundara, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral trainee of the Duke University Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center, has developed a unique project that integrates his expertise in environmental health research with capacity building to address issues related to environmental health in his native country of Sri Lanka.
By testing local water quality and using community-engaged research approaches, Jayasundara and his team hope not only to better understand the association between chemical mixtures and water quality to kidney disease in the population, but also to inspire the next generation of Sri Lankan scientists.
In the North Central Province, residents experience a high risk for kidney disease. Although the exact causes of the disease are unknown, there is a strong indication that chemical mixtures in local water sources and changes in water quality may play a role. Most common in farmers and agricultural communities, the prevalence of kidney disease of unknown origin has been found to be as high as 22% in some districts.
SRP Training Paves Way for Global Environmental Health Research
Jayasundara’s research efforts began in 2012 at the Duke SRP Center. There, he used a small estuarine fish (Fundulus heteroclitus) and a commonly used laboratory model zebrafish (Danio rerio) to study the developmental impacts of exposure to a widespread mixture of chemical pollutants.
Drawing on the multidisciplinary framework of the SRP, Jayasundara is now integrating ecological and laboratory studies with environmental science to better understand the role of environmental conditions or exposures on human health in Sri Lanka. “My research is about more than scientific curiosity for me,” said Jayasundara. “I want to figure out how to use my education, training, and expertise to build capacity in Sri Lanka to address environmental health concerns of the community.”
In his new position as an assistant professor at the School of Marine Sciences and faculty at the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering at the University of Maine, he plans to use a Danio species, coincidentally native to Sri Lanka, and other fish species as markers of exposure for low levels of chemical mixtures in the environment. Through a project funded by the Duke Global Health Institute and with collaborators at Duke University, the research team also plans to analyze water chemistry in affected areas.
Training Local Students to Lead Community Science
Since researchers visits to the field are limited to once or twice per year, the team has developed a creative, community-based solution to train local students to collect water samples at regular intervals.
In November, Jayasundara and his collaborators will return to Sri Lanka to train a group of 16- and 17-year-old students on how to collect and monitor basic water quality parameters from lakes. The students will then collect water quality data bi-monthly and will have the opportunity to learn what these measurements mean. In addition, training will provide them with the capacity to serve as a local testing center for community members to get their drinking water wells tested for basic parameters, such as pH—a significant need in the affected regions.
“This creative strategy not only gives us a more detailed picture of water quality in this region of Sri Lanka than we could accomplish on our own, but also gives the students a chance to learn how to use scientific tools and think about how water changes with the seasons or in response to agricultural activities. This is critical because these students are the future leaders of these communities. Since links between environmental health and human diseases are not always straightforward, this also gives students an opportunity to critically think about addressing these issues. More importantly, it is an avenue for students to get hands-on exposure to scientific tools, a rarity in these rural communities. Hopefully, this will also get them excited about science!” Jayasundara said.
To facilitate the exchange of research data and to further the students’ education, a key collaborator of the project, Dr. Dilrini De Silva, donated raspberry pi laptops, which will allow the students to learn more about creating charts, sharing data, and utilizing spreadsheets while providing internet access to the whole school.
Raising Awareness on Water Quality Issues within Local Communities
“When we started this project, we approached it as an opportunity to teach local communities about current existing environmental health issues, and to learn more from them about the local practices and ecology,” Jayasundara said. “Although community members are highly aware of kidney disease, they have little understanding of how environmental contaminants in their water systems and other water quality issues can impact risk of the disease.”
“Providing local youth and other community members with tools to measure water quality themselves and the information to understand what the data mean helps them better advocate for maintaining a healthy environment and obtain access to clean water,” he noted.