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Feature: Earth Day, Every Day

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Hawaii native Alexandria Boehm is passionate about her career in environmental engineering. When she’s not traveling the world to aid coastal communities, she’s teaching a course  on environmental law and science policy through the Stanford University Law School. Boehm and her fellow professors dive into topics like beach pollution and disappearing wetlands. Her students enjoy brainstorming their own ideas for tackling these problems, she says. And Boehm gets the chance to test out her own solutions during her frequent travels.

Boehm recently spent three months studying polluted drinking water in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She brought some Stanford engineering students with her to try and find out whether giving individual households information about the quality of their water would help them make changes to keep it clean. Since houses don’t have pipes, residents bring well water into their homes and store it in containers. “When the water comes out of the well, it’s very clean, but when they store it in their homes, that’s when it gets dirty,” explains Boehm. “So far, we’ve found that there’s a lot more bacteria on people’s hands and in their water than we thought. We were really surprised at that.”

To test the water, Boehm and her team converted an apartment in Dar es Salaam into a laboratory. They bought tables to serve as lab benches and built their own filtration devices and portable incubators. They tested more than a hundred samples of water a day from homes, wells, and people’s hands. Boehm hopes the information will prove valuable, because Tanzania has one of the highest death rates for children under 5 for gastroenteritis, which comes from poor drinking water.

Boehm also works closer to home. She spent a week in the Catalina Islands off the California coast to study how sunlight affects harmful microbes in the water. “The beach is really polluted, and there’s a big study here on how often people get sick from the water,” she says. “We’re wondering: Can sun disinfect the water? And if so, how is that happening?”

In the future, Boehm would like to do more work in her home state of Hawaii. There’s plenty to keep an environmental engineer like her busy: More than one-third of the world’s people live in coastal communities. But for now, she loves her work at Stanford. “I’d like to stay here and continue doing what I’m doing,” she says, “and continue to branch out a little bit more.”

Read this article as it appeared in eGFI magazine (pps. 26-27).

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