Q&A with Musa Manga, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
We at Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Dr. Musa Manga about his professional background prior to joining the faculty at Gillings, his research in water, sanitation, and hygiene, his favorite aspect of teaching ENVR 582-Sanitation for Development, and what global health means to him.
What was your background before joining the faculty at Gillings?
Prior to joining the faculty at Gillings, I worked as a water, sanitation, and environmental engineer for over 10 years in consulting firms and government organizations. I was part of numerous interdisciplinary teams that designed and constructed several sewerage systems, low-cost sanitation technologies, water supply systems, water and wastewater treatment plants in Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. I was also part of teams as a Water/ Environmental engineer that conducted several Environmental impact assessment and Environmental audit studies for the oil and gas industry, Hydropower sector, transmission lines, roads and landfills (See Photo A).
In 2010, I joined the Institute of Public Health and Environmental Engineering (iPHEE), School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, UK – as a research assistant on global WaSH under the supervision of Prof. Barbara Evans who introduced me to WaSH, until 2011 (See Photo B). In 2013, I returned to the University of Leeds as a doctoral researcher and my research focused on improving global sanitation and faecal sludge management practices in Urban Africa to protect public health, under the supervision of Professors Barbara Evans and Miller Alonso Camargo-Valero.
Upon graduation, I joined the Water Institute at UNC in 2017 – as a postdoctoral research associate under the supervision of Professors Pete Kolsky and Jamie Bartram where I served as a lead researcher for a project titled “Unsafe Returns of Human Waste to the Environment” funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2020, I joined the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE), and I continued working on Global Sanitation Issues in the Water Institute, until June 2022, when I finally joined ESE Faculty! As faculty, I am excited to continue using environmental engineering and microbiology tools to improve sanitation and faecal sludge management practices in the global south and marginalized communities to protect public health and wellbeing.
What drew you to the Gillings School of Global Public Health?
Firstly, the diversity of the Gillings community is one thing that drew me to Gillings – as this makes it a truly unique school in the UNC. There is a strong sense of belonging to the same community that guides the way students, faculty, staff, and administrators approach their day-to-day work. Secondly, the outstanding faculty – Gillings Professors (such as Barbara Turpin, Jill Stewart, Mark Sobsey, Pete Kolsky, Jamie Bartram, Jason Surratt, Jason West, etc.) that are some of the most respected scholars, researchers, and teachers in their fields. These professors are extremely approachable, and they are generally very open to research collaborations.
Further, the Gillings School of Global Public Health is one of the best public health schools in the US for students and researchers in public health research and policy – “Who doesn’t want to be part of the best school or winning team?”. The Gillings School has a long tradition of working in water, sanitation, and environmental health around the world, and its reputation in this area has revived and strengthened since the formation of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Lastly, I have had an excellent research experience as a postdoctoral researcher in the Water Institute and Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (under the supervision of Profs. Aaron Salzberg, Jill Stewart, and Barbara Turpin) and I wanted to give back the same exceptional research and learning experience to my students, and junior researchers in Gillings. I look forward to building and strengthening the professional networks of Gillings in the WaSH field through research collaborations and professional communications with colleagues!
Can you tell us more about your research on water, sanitation, and hygiene?
Sure, I am passionate about the WaSH, and my research uses environmental engineering and microbiology tools to identify low-cost, scalable, and sustainable interventions to interrupt transmission of excreta-related diseases to protect public health and wellbeing. My research focuses mainly on planning, monitoring, and improvement of sanitation, and fecal sludge management practices in the global south and marginalized communities to promote: i) equity for underserved communities in both developing and developed countries; ii) development and validation of pathogen hazards and risk models; iii) environmental justice and climate change mitigation; and iv) optimization of sanitation technologies/ wastewater treatment and BioResource Recovery (Nutrient and BioEnergy).
My current research activities include development of tools for tracking pathogens and fecal hazards in communities; life cycle costing of water and sanitation programs; understanding the i) performance of sanitation technologies, ii) effectiveness of rural sanitation programs, iii) sustainability and equity in community-wide approaches that improve access to safe sanitation and water, and iv) alternatives to conventional water borne sewerage in dense urban areas; and development, optimization and application of sustainable human excreta and solid waste management technologies/ strategies to achieve effective pathogen inactivation and bioresource recovery.
I have worked on several projects in urban Africa and South Asia that have evaluated the management and treatment of wastewater/human waste from different sanitation technologies (both on-site and off-site). Prior to joining the Water Institute, I worked at the University of Leeds, where I investigated the treatment and reuse of fecal sludge in urban Africa, focusing on pathogen inactivation and nutrient resources recovery (See Photo C) and I also led research on sanitation in the informal settlements of Soweto, South Africa that resulted in the development of lifecycle costing models for low-cost sanitation technologies (i.e., low-cost off-site and on-site sanitation technologies) in urban Africa. I am currently leading research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the unsafe return of human waste to the environment in Trichy and Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India.
What is your favorite aspect of teaching ENVR 582 – Sanitation For Development?
Firstly, the ENV 582 course is designed for all UNC students (both undergraduate and graduate) – as it doesn’t require any background knowledge in global sanitation other than the interest and commitment to understand the problems of inadequate sanitation, the challenges in addressing public health issues in the developing world, and current approaches to achieving sustainable access to safely managed sanitation services. The favorite aspect of teaching this course is about the diverse background of my students that enroll in the course. I enjoy interacting with them, learning from them, and helping them understand the many problems of inadequate sanitation in the developing world and the common technical and institutional approaches to resolving them. My other favorite aspect of teaching ENVR 582 is the lively conversational class atmosphere and active participation of students, especially during class discussions and presentation of group assignments on real case studies and problem-based topics. This encourages peer teaching and learning, and also promotes collaborative learning in my course to enhance self-learning and critical thinking. I also love that “oooooh” look on some students’ faces when they finally understand the many problems of inadequate sanitation in the developing world. One of the most rewarding components of this course is seeing my students’ growing interests in global sanitation research so as to address some of these complex problems of inadequate sanitation. Further, I love it when my students let me know how they have used the knowledge acquired from my course to identify some sections of the sanitation service chain that are not working or have failed in their communities. For example, in 2021, one of my students was able to note that they had a failing septic tank in their compound, which she couldn’t identify before taking my course.
Can you tell us about your work with the UNC Water Institute?
I am currently the sanitation lead at Water Institute and a lead researcher of “Proof of Concept of Estimates of Unsafe Return of Human Excreta to the environment” project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This project is exploring the effectiveness of local sanitation technologies in reducing pathogen hazards in human waste before release to the environment; and development and testing of Community Hazard Flow Models for local sanitation planning, with a view of promoting better decision-making and priority setting of the sanitation interventions from the public health perspective. In order to address this 4 years’ project objectives, I led an extensive fieldwork in Trichy and Coimbatore, India. This included sampling sites along the sanitation service chain; collecting data on faecal pathogen hazards; and assessing design, construction, and structural integrity of the existing sanitation technologies and their performance in terms of pathogen removal; and collecting data on faecal sludge management practices in the Trichy and Coimbatore study areas of Tamil Nadu, India (See Photo D).
A key part of this effort was presentation and consultation meetings with local government authorities on faecal sludge management practices in Trichy City Corporation and Coimbatore (See Photo E). Our work has unveiled the pathogen hazards associated with the sanitation technologies in Tamil Nadu, India. Further, our research will continue with developing tools that practitioners and policy makers will need to guide the management of human excreta – at scale – in individual and small-community settings throughout the world. Once fully validated, we believe the “Community Fecal Hazard Flow Model” will provide a framework for identifying where, in the sanitation service chain, the public health risks are greatest and how scarce investment dollars can most effectively be programmed to reduce disease and environmental contamination. As the sanitation lead, I also supervise both MPH and MSc students interested in global sanitation issues, and I try to connect them with partners both in south Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa for their practicum.
What does “global health” mean to you?
Global health is about bridging the gap between interdisciplinary science, practice, and policy to improve health and promote equity in health and wellbeing, especially in the global south and underserved communities.
What’s your favorite smell?
It would be the scent of vanilla. It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Can you tell us about your favorite teacher that you’ve ever had?
This is a one-million-dollar question! I have had several amazing/ incredible mentors and instructors throughout my academic career, and I am grateful to all of them for their excellent work! However, I want to extend my endless gratitude to Dr. Miller Alonso Camargo-Valero at the University of Leeds, who was my PhD co-advisor. Dr. Miller is a selfless mentor who puts the success of his students first. He would do whatever it takes to make sure that his students are excellent at research and successful academically, especially in conducting fundamental research that involves laboratory analysis.
Additional photos of Dr. Musa Manga’s work: