Dr. Lanakila “Ku” McMahan

Dr. Lanakila “Ku” McMahan

Ku McMahan, MPH 2007, PHD 2011 Environmental Sciences and Engineering, was recently named recipient of the Distinguished Young Alumni Award.

Awarded by the General Alumni Association of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the award recognizes alumni age 40 or younger whose achievements have brought credit to the University.

Ku serves as Team Lead for Securing Water for Food: A Grand Challenge for Development at USAID, a $35M partnership between USAID, South Africa, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Foreign Ministry of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with the goal of helping farmers around the world grow more food using less water, enhance water storage, and improve the use of saline water and soil to produce food.

We talked recently with Ku about his Carolina experiences and what he’s been up to since graduating from the Gillings School.

What led you to public health and the Gillings School?

I was fortunate to have received funding throughout my higher-ed journey that allowed me to explore different opportunities in environmental health. After completing an undergraduate degree at Duke University, I was looking for the best graduate school in terms of price, value and quality, and found that the Gillings School had all of those qualities I was looking for. It was important to me to choose a school where I could learn the skills needed to make an impact on water sanitation and hygiene, something that I always saw was a global issue. I applied nowhere else because I knew I wanted to study at the Gillings School.

I received a National Science Foundation fellowship to study at the Gillings School and, at first I was only interested in pursuing a Master’s degree and proceed to work as an environmental consultant in the DC-area. One of my professors suggested that I pursue a doctoral degree and make a bigger impact in environmental health. I knew I wanted to have a chance to help people, so I took his advice to heart.

With an EPA fellowship, I was able to start my research work on water sanitation and hygiene and water quality, and took a working prototype out to the field, in Vietnam. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and it gave me the drive to doing global work and helping people internationally.

Tell us about your public health journey since graduating from UNC.

After completing my doctorate, I worked with a team that included Dr. Mark Sobsey (retired Kenan Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health) and others to conduct a community health survey and integrate water quality tests in Peru.

I then worked at Florida International University, where I managed projects for USAID and did a bit of teaching. I realized I would make more of an impact if I worked directly with the organization, so I applied for and received the AAAS Fellowship to USAID, a science, technology and policy fellowship with the goal of bringing PhD scientists into government work and help policy makers to make informed scientific decisions. That opportunity led to several others, and I now oversee two global Grand Challenges for Development.

What did you learn at UNC that helped you grow to become the public health professional that you are today?

It wasn’t until I started studying at UNC that I really understood the importance of turning theory into practice. I was able to take what I learned and turn it into solutions and practical implementation. My experience allowed me not only to help the people in the community understand the impact of water sanitation and hygiene, it also helped bring clarity for me to want to do something about it on a global scale.

Tell us about your fondest memories at UNC and the Gillings School.

What’s not to love about Carolina? My favorite memories at UNC were the people. The students I worked with were so dynamic and truly wanted to make the world a better place. My fondest memories were all from UNC. I still keep in touch and have remained close with friends that I made while at Carolina.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work? Tell us one thing that most people may not know about you.

I love to cook and eat, and also salsa dancing (though I haven’t done it in a while)! I also enjoy playing disc golf and always have since 2003, when I played in an informal league at Carolina.

Only my close friends know that I once sat on a crocodile. I was working on a project in a remote area in Burkina Faso where the people there were trying to develop and promote tourism in the area. The tour organizers wanted to show the community’s peaceful coexistence with crocodiles, and they asked me and others in our group to sit on one. That might be the strangest thing I’ve ever done!