Independent Study: ACRE-Duke Bass Connections

In the fall of 2018, I participated in a Bass Connections project centered on the  ongoing partnership between Duke University and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE). ACRE was founded by Catherine Coleman Flowers to address the widespread environmental injustices occurring in the rural community of Lowndes County, Alabama. The majority of residents in this county are not connected to the municipal sewer system and frequently experience septic tank failures, resulting in raw sewage backup into their yards and homes. Many residents cannot afford to install (and reinstall) septic tank systems, or cannot afford the expensive engineering systems that may prevent sewage failure. Therefore, many residents must resort to straight-piping (sending their waste straight out of their homes without treatment). The prevalence of raw sewage in this community has reintroduced hookworm, a tropical parasite which was once thought to be eliminated in the US. This Bass Connections team aimed to advance ACRE’s goals for Lowndes County, and I specifically worked with a team of engineering students and faculty to research novel methods for the disinfection of waste water. Our research aimed to kill helminths (the category of tropical parasites that includes hookworm) that are present in wastewater to minimize the negative health impacts that residents experience from sewage backup. We investigated the use of microwave radiation to kill helminths in wastewater, with the hopes of eventually implementing altered domestic microwave technology in Lowndes in order to reduce the health detriments experienced from helminths. By the end of the semester, a literature review and detailed experimental plan were produced, along with the background and justification for the proposed experiment. The experiment will be completed over the course of approximately 9 months in 2019, and I will not be heavily involved in the execution of the experiment due to my expected graduation in May 2019.

An instance of straight-piping under a Lowndes resident’s mobile home.
Bass Connections students visiting the Fort Deposit wastewater treatment facility in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Bass Connections students visiting the Fort Deposit wastewater treatment facility in Lowndes County, Alabama.
Raw sewage in the yard of a Lowndes resident.
Raw sewage in the yard of a Lowndes resident.
Relation to my focus on clean water access

This experience brought my attention to the very serious and widespread environmental inequities that exist in the United States. Water and sanitation problems are frequently overlooked in so-called “developed” nations due to the commonly held belief that such problems appear exclusively in the Global South. The opportunity to engage with residents of Lowndes and hear about their frustration with systems of injustice was invaluable and altered my career trajectory by bringing my focus to communities in the American South that deal with extremely poor (and often life-threatening) water and sanitation quality. As a society, we should find these injustices outrageous and inexcusable, and pressure our lawmakers to implement policies that directly address these problems. Public awareness is the first step to change, and working to bring awareness of the issues in Lowndes to the scientific and engineering communities was a valuable learning experience. This Bass Connections team also investigated connections between multiple systems of discrimination, which depend my understanding of the relationship between environmental health and racial/socioeconomic inequities.


Supervisor: Dr. David Schaad

Start date: August 2018

End date: December 2018

Hours to complete: 100 hours