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Commonwealth Honors Scholars Tackle Health Issues Facing Haiti

Program Helps Students Confront Real-World Challenges

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Staff members in the Haiti Development Studies Center in Les Cayes construct a bio-sand water-filter system.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Every day, children in Haiti must walk to the community well and carry back water to their homes for use in drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. But what is the quality of that water?

“We tested the local water in Les Cayes and it came back positive for bacteria,” says Prof. Robert Giles.

Giles, who chairs the Physics and Applied Physics Department and directs the University’s Submillimeter-Wave Technology Laboratory, has dedicated a decade of his life serving the underprivileged segment of Haitian society. Recently, he established the UMass Lowell Haiti Development Studies Center (HDSC) in Les Cayes, which is about 200 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The HDSC’s mission is to engage faculty and students from Haiti and UMass Lowell in philanthropic research focused on solving life-threatening conditions faced by citizens in the world’s poorest nations. 

In response, two students in UMass Lowell’s Commonwealth Honors program — Rachel Paquette and Jillian Giles — are collaborating with Giles and the HDSC staff to provide clean, safe water for Haitian residents.

Paquette, a senior majoring in biology, is investigating established water-purification techniques with an eye to implementing them not only in the HDSC’s facility but also in the surrounding regions. 

Jillian Giles, daughter of Prof. Giles, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics in July and will be starting in the physics Ph.D. program this fall. She is working with the center in developing a pilot study in Haiti to diagnose leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. The bacteria can enter the body by drinking, or coming in contact with, contaminated water. Without treatment, people afflicted by leptospirosis can suffer kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and death.

“As an at-home and abroad program, the Haiti Center’s research projects not only challenge the critical thinking skills of our students, but also raise their awareness of socio-economic and regional factors that hinder positive world change,” says Prof. Giles.

Science & Technology in an Impoverished World

Paquette has developed an educational program involving the fabrication of bio-sand filter systems using indigenous materials and labor. Seed funding for the project was provided by philanthropists Kristen Williams and her husband, George Haseotes of Cumberland Farms. 

The bio-sand filter is a slow filtration system that uses a casing made from cement and filled with three different layers of sand. According to Paquette, the system purifies water in four basic steps: mechanical trapping (suspended solids and pathogens are physically trapped), predation (pathogens are consumed by other microorganisms), adsorption (pathogens become attached to other suspended solids in water and the sand grains) and natural death (pathogens finish their life cycle or die because of oxygen and/or food starvation).

“Another key aspect of the bio-sand filter is the bio-layer,” she notes. “This layer removes up to 70 percent of pathogens through mechanical trapping and predation.” 

During Giles’s visit to Haiti last summer, he and his HDSC staff hired workers to build the filters and conducted a teachers’ science training program for select graduates of College St. Jean in Les Cayes. 

“The young adults in the training program were taught how to test water and develop technical reports detailing water quality before and after filtration,” he says. “They will be responsible for installing five filtration systems within the community and submit their reports to Rachel for inclusion with her Honors thesis.”

“I have not been to Haiti,” says Paquette, “but I look forward to going in January.”

Paquette was drawn to the country after enrolling in Giles’s Honors course in spring called “Science & Technology in an Impoverished World.”

“Prof. Giles’s class puts students’ knowledge to a true test,” she explains. “It taught me what the real world was like. I was asked to come up with an idea, develop a proposal and present my work to a group of my peers. Writing proposals and applying for grants are a necessary part of working in the science field.” 

Combating a Serious Infectious Disease

Jillian has been to Haiti twice — during the summers of 2005, when she was 14, and 2006. In her first trip, she volunteered in a medical clinic in Les Cayes that had been set up by an aid organization known as “Forward in Health.”

“The majority of my time was spent distributing medications to people who had been examined by doctors in the clinic,” says Jillian. “I immediately knew I wanted to address health issues that involve infectious diseases because, despite my decision to study physics, I have a great love for biology and medicine.”

Her current goal is to work with Forward in Health in establishing an efficient, effective and sustainable method for diagnosing leptospirosis. She plans to explore alternative diagnostic techniques while investigating the clinical manifestations of the disease in Haitian communities. She is also actively seeking foundational funding to scale-up her proposal.

“While this disease is easy to treat with antibiotics, it has the potential to be life-threatening if an individual contracts the more severe form, known as Weil’s disease,” she says. “From much researching, I found this bacterial disease, which is transmitted from animals to humans through contaminated water, has been present in Haiti for quite some time. Looking at the bigger picture, we aim to use this pilot study to develop an infrastructure in rural Haitian communities that gives people access to preliminary diagnostics and treatment.”

Jillian adds: “The experiences I encountered in my travels to Haiti were powerful and amazing. Witnessing the country’s great poverty firsthand was life-changing. Amazingly, the Haitian people, despite abject destitution, always celebrate life. Their love for life and for each other is powerful and beautiful. My interactions with them were humbling, and they filled me with immense compassion. The importance of life and loving one’s neighbor was brought to the forefront of my life as a result of my mission work in Haiti.”