Gillings students cross international and disciplinary borders in the Galápagos

September 3, 2019

A group of UNC Gillings students and locals study water quality in the Galapagos Islands. Left to right in the foreground are: Khristopher Nicholas; Valeria Ochoa-Herrera; Romina; Chelsea Philyaw; Elijah Watson (with glasses); and Kishan Patel (also with glasses at the front right). Gabriel is behind Kishan (he is a government worker who helped recruit many households to the study). Manuel is at the back right (he is the mayor of Isabela). (Contributed photo)

Left to right in the foreground are: Khristopher Nicholas; Valeria Ochoa-Herrera; Romina; Chelsea Philyaw; Elijah Watson (with glasses); and Kishan Patel (also with glasses at the front right). Gabriel is behind Kishan (he is a government worker who helped recruit many households to the study). Manuel is at the back right (he is the mayor of Isabela). (Contributed photo)

Over the summer, students and faculty from the Gillings School of Global Public Health joined forces with students from Universidad San Francisco de Quito to conduct a study in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. The group piloted an investigation among households on Isabela Island to evaluate health, water quality and community perceptions of water and food insecurity.

Students with backgrounds ranging from nutrition and environmental health to anthropology and biostatistics collected various types of quantitative and qualitative data from households across the island.

Some group members analyzed tap and drinking water samples to measure total coliforms, E. coli, salinity levels and heavy metals. Others implemented household surveys, collecting data on basic health measures and food availability. Still more students gathered anthropometry measurements and key biomarkers in order to assess health outcomes.

The Isabela study was carried out in response to island residents’ concerns. Community members shared their worries about the quality of their water and its impacts on their day-to-day health. After spending three weeks gathering data to inform this question, the students are back in the United States and are hoping that their work with the municipality will ultimately improve the water quality provided to island inhabitants.

“We recognize that improved water is what everyone wants, from the municipal officials to individual residents,” said Khristopher Nicholas, a doctoral student of nutrition at the Gillings School. “The next step is the hardest part: Figuring out how best to pair science with policy to navigate local customs, respect for community desires, and local officials’ budgets and funding. We have a great team with lots of Ecuadorian experts, so we’re optimistic!”

A group of UNC Gillings students and locals study water quality in the Galapagos Islands.

A group of UNC Gillings students and locals study water quality in the Galapagos Islands.

As the first day of fall classes draws near, the students are reminiscing about their downtime on Isabela. They relaxed on the beach, hiked scenic trails and mountain biked down a volcano! They also forged genuine relationships with local residents, building their understanding of the community partnerships that are integral to successful work in global public health.

“We spent our time visiting participant households, and we met a large number of island residents,” said Kishan Patel, an undergraduate student of nutrition at UNC Gillings. “Everyone around the island eventually recognized us as ‘Los Chicos’”

All the students report that public health is an integral part of their future plans. Whether they plan to become medical doctors, dentists or lifelong researchers, they say they will look back on this experience as an inspiring blend of important research, international travel and the opportunity to meet the residents of the Galápagos Islands, who will always keep a special place in their hearts.


Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@listserv.unc.edu.

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