Isis Mejias, PhD
When I ask myself why education is so important in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) crisis, I always reflect on how education was rooted in my family for nearly a century and how this transformed my life. My answer is always the same: making education a top priority can open a world of opportunities for people to evolve. Having access to safe and sufficient water, sanitation, and hygiene is essential to living a life in dignity and upholding human rights. Yet, billions of people still do not have these fundamental rights, and continue being affected by water-borne diseases. Building local knowledge and skills in safe, acceptable, and affordable WASH practices can enable people to obtain these basic rights and search for their own evolution as human beings.
Education is what made me a WASH advocate today. I grew up in Venezuela, and during the early years of my life, I witnessed people being affected by water-borne diseases and others such as Malaria. This was a spark to use science in the years ahead to build knowledge that could empower people to solve these kinds of problems. So here I tell you the story of how I continued this passion.
THE YEARS IN WATER RESEARCH
My professional career started in the private sector. To further explore my research interests, I obtained my PhD at the University of Houston in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department where I focused on evolving water remediation techniques, particularly for water reuse applications. My years of research focused on developing processes with nanotechnology and biotechnology for water treatment applications, and applying those technologies in the developing world. My research related principally to the removal of pernicious environmental contaminants in drinking water, particularly disease causing microorganisms and heavy metals, such as copper and lead. My investigation demonstrated that some derivatives of the revolutionary nanomaterial graphene can destroy harmful bacteria in water while causing no damage to human cells. I also demonstrated that some of these materials could remove heavy metals dissolved in water. This line of research has led to the development of a water filtration system.
Taking my research into the field, I spent two years in São Paulo, Brazil where I developed a column biofilter using microorganisms taken from a heavily contaminated river in São Paulo, the Tietê. I tested the resistance of these microorganisms in order to scale up the filter for heavy metal sorption. While in Brazil, I established an international research collaboration between the University of São Paulo and the University of Houston.
THE TIME IN AFRICA
My consciousness for environmental and global WASH issues increased further during my work in Kenya and Uganda, where I led water and sanitation projects in rural communities. It was in Maseno, Kenya where I truly discovered my passion for community engagement in WASH issues. I had the opportunity to manage the design and construction of a water distribution system in Kenya for the Maseno Municipal Hospital, through a partnership between Engineers Without Borders and Rotary. The success and visibility of this project resulted in an invitation from Rotary to lead the project planning and management of a WASH in Schools program in Kalisizo, Uganda.
When I was offered the challenge of forming an assessment team to address water and sanitation needs in Uganda and Kenya, I was thrilled to envision solutions to uphold the principles of health, human dignity, and equality. My commitment to increasing the quality of life in developing countries is a reaffirmation of Rotary’s long history of reaching out to those in greatest need and to redressing health inequalities and their causes.
WHAT I HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
I hope to draw attention to innovative strategies that will lead to real improvements in WASH issues, such as metal pollution of surface waters and the impact that mining brings to humans and the environment. My long-term career objective is to create worldwide incentives for the recycle and reuse of water, and stimulate the sustainable growth in rural communities. My research has supported this by supporting the development of sustainable and affordable water treatment technologies. My aim is to stimulate policy dialogue at county, state, and country levels, to inform actions by legal entities, consultants, the medical community, NGOs, and governmental agencies. But most importantly, my aim is to create awareness of our daily impact on this planet and ourselves. Ecotourism and voluntourism can bring an intercultural exchange to bring a meaningful learning experience for all involved. We travel with the purpose to generate knowledge and discoveries. Join us in the effort to work on this great cause.