Aimee Moor (Gall), a member of the Smart Water Disinfection Project team, is an Illinois Ph.D. student in Environmental Engineering specializing in viruses: how they infect; how they multiply; and how they can be stopped from doing so.
During her graduate studies, Aimee has worked most closely with adenovirus, a pathogen present worldwide in drinking water supplies that causes diarrheal disease, respiratory problems, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Adenovirus is of particular interest to the Smart Water Disinfection team because it is one of the trickiest to inactivate — render harmless — as it isn’t affected by several popular kinds of water treatments.
So, Aimee said, if you can find a treatment that will inactivate adenovirus, you can inactivate a lot of other viruses with the same treatment.
In the lab, she exposes viruses to a chlorine-based disinfectant and then takes samples of the treated water to combine with cultures of human carcinoma lung cells. After several days’ incubation, she can determine (based on visible symptoms of infection) how many virus cells were inactivated by the treatment, and how many were left infectious.
In addition to discovering the ways adenovirus is inactivated, Aimee is also helping to develop a sensor for active viruses in water. Bacteria in water are relatively easy to detect — just take a sample and let it grow colorful patches in an incubator for 24 to 48 hours. Viruses, however, must infect host cells and be allowed to multiply for a week or more to get a visual result. Using DNA strands as a red-flag system, she hopes to create a dipstick that could be inserted into a water sample and change color to indicate the presence of active viruses.
“This tool would be invaluable in the field,” she said, because people could collect water, treat it, and dip in the sensor stick to be sure that the treatment was successful. The change in sensor color could be a simple yes or no to viruses, or it could display a color along a gradient for a more detailed reading of the water composition. This sensor technology would be the first of its kind, and it all starts with learning how viruses are inactivated by different treatments.
Although she is passionate about the subject now, water was not her first area of study. Aimee completed an undergraduate degree at Ohio State University in Mechanical Engineering. During the latter stages of her undergrad experience, she participated in an international project to build water infrastructure and improve water quality in Honduras. Afterward, she was excited to continue working with the fundamental need for water and began a Masters program in Environmental Engineering.
She has since served as a teaching assistant for the Civil and Environmental Engineering Lab class (CEE 449) for four semesters. She especially enjoyed traveling to Africa with U of I students as part of this class to collaborate with local universities on water quality field research. So far, her various research trips have taken her to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.
International collaborations have resulted in some of her greatest memories as a researcher. One of her favorites is of a student named Vincent from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. He visited Illinois one summer to learn from Aimee how to run disinfection experiments. When he returned to Kenya, he was able to get equipment to begin doing research of his own. Aimee called this spread of scientific knowledge a “victory.”
“I like the ‘people-applied’ area of research,” she said. “My long-term goal for this is working in developing regions and working with people who have water they’re not applying disinfectants to. I see the impact it could have on people globally, so I think the part that keeps me going is the fact that there are so many people that don’t have treated water.”
She can clearly see the sustainability applications of her clean water work.
“Sustainability is ingrained in us [by society] as doing something now so that our children and our grandchildren can have equal or better in the future,” she said. “So we are trying to create clean water everywhere even as the water sources are getting less and less pristine. Maybe that’s going to continue onward, but if I can continue making water cleaner and safer for the future, I feel like that’s the best.”
Sustainability, however, does not look the same everywhere in the world, she cautioned.
“Drinking water systems are so broad. The utilities in the U.S. are so different from what we see in Europe and in Africa. As I study sustainability here in the U.S., my interpretation of it might be different than what I find when I’m traveling to East Africa.”
Thus, interdepartmental and international collaborations are “absolutely necessary” for effective research she said.