“A lot of times people don’t know the field of public health exists,” says Samantha Becker, who is pursuing a Masters of Public Health at the University of Michigan. “It’s hard because it’s not like when you’re a kid and you say, ‘Oh, I want to be a doctor!’ You don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to be a public health professional.’”
Perhaps due to the inconspicuous nature of the field, Becker wasn’t initially drawn to public health. She studied civil engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and got involved in water quality research. Becker did field and laboratory work for the National Environment Engineering Research Institute in the Nagpur Area in India.
“I ended up going for a summer to India and testing water quality in really rural villages. When you actually try to implement something like that and you try to bring a solution to a village, there are so many things you wouldn’t think about. There’s the behavior change of everything — are people going to even accept this?”
The team Becker was working with was trying to implement a device to kill pathogens and clean the water. But villagers were not using the device because of its function, they were using it because the organization Becker’s team was working with was well-known and respected in the village. Trust played a crucial role in getting people to engage in the changes Becker and her team were implementing.
This lesson on the importance of trust made Becker realize that technology alone could not solve problems like poor water quality. Political, cultural, and social factors at play in a community must be acknowledged and taken into account for interventions to succeed. Becker took time to learn about policy while working in both India and Atlanta, Georgia, before coming to graduate school. During that time out of school, she was able to get a better idea of what it takes to effect real change on the ground.
“There are so many disciplines that kind of come together to influence whether an intervention is sustainable or not,” says Becker. “It’s true with public health but it’s also true with sustainability as a whole. I want to work on the policy side because I know what it takes to implement sustainability and it’s hard.”
As a 2018 Dow Fellow, Becker is exploring her interests in the environmental impacts on human health and conversely, human impacts on environmental health. While her background is in water, she’s looking at other avenues for her current Dow project. Becker and her team are focusing on electronic waste (e-waste).
“There’s an international convention called the Basel Convention. All these countries came together and put a limit on the boundaries of hazardous waste, and electronic waste falls under hazardous waste. The U.S. and Haiti are the only countries that didn’t sign it. E-waste is really unregulated, so for our project, we’re picking a community and seeing what happens to the e-waste.”
Becker’s team will also analyze the occupational illness associated with e-waste recycling and focus on the effects of e-waste on the community. Between their analysis of e-waste life cycles and its social, economic, and environmental impacts, the project will draw on multiple areas of expertise beyond public health, which is where Becker’s teammates come in. After studying at Georgia Tech, which is primarily an engineering school, Becker is excited to be a part of an interdisciplinary team.
“At Georgia Tech, there weren’t all these influences from different schools like there is here. Michigan is such a different school. You really get an appreciation for how all these different disciplines play into successful interventions in sustainability.”