News of papers published, revised, submitted, conceived…

Been busy behind the scenes

To be explained in due time…

Thank you all for bearing with me during this period of relative inactivity on substack. Colleagues and I have had an intensively productive season of analyzing and re-analyzing data looked at through new and different lenses and thinking about how our work can enter the world in a variety of potentially utilitarian formats.

Here’s a redux of where certain projects stand, and to give a sense of what you can expect for content over the coming weeks and months:

·      Low-cost activation of biochar adsorbent

Matt Bentley, PhD, is leading a major effort to report on low cost, simple-tech methods for activation of biochar adsorbents. A segment of his work titled “Pre-pyrolysis metal and base addition catalyzes pore development and improves organic micropollutant adsorption to pine biochar” has just been submitted to the journal Carbon. This represents the most advanced work to-date on achieving activated-carbon-like properties from biochars generated via relatively simple and low-cost technologies. As it makes its way through the pipeline towards publication (fingers crossed!) we’ll be distilling the main points down for practitioners to take advantage of these advancements with a conservative scientific margin of error and reporting them here where they fit as Chapter sections.

·      Modeling fluoride sorption on bonechar

Maggie Thompson, MS, is on the cusp of publishing her first first-author paper entitled “Modeling and experimental approaches for determining fluoride diffusion kinetics in bone char sorbent and prediction of packed-bed groundwater defluoridator performance.” We submitted this manuscript to the well-regarded journal Water Research a few months back. I’m happy to report that it sailed through peer-review with fairly high marks and only minor revisions requested for publication. What’s more, Maggie was invited to up-cycle it to the open-access journal Water Research X at no charge. Which means, pending the editor’s final decision, that you will all be able to access it for free. 

The only downside of this arrangement is that this paper is nerdy-as-all-get-out. It’s good, impactful, important science – trust me! It’s just real nuts-and-boltsy-type reading most enjoyable perhaps for those well-ensconced in this little corner of sorption esoterica.

But do not fear: (1) it will be translated and reduxxed into usable bits for forthcoming book sections, and (2) we already have plans in the works for a follow-up paper that builds off of this fundamental research to inform general applicability. 

To those ends I am thrilled to report that this week I’m taking my first post-COVID fieldwork trip to work with our collaborators at Caminos de Agua in central Mexico. The objectives are to conduct a subset of experiments to (hopefully) confirm that-which-we-observed-in-the-University-laboratory is also reproducible in the field, as well as to build a set of practitioner’s tools for conducting experiments under field-lab conditions that will provide reliable simulation of real world household and community treatment of groundwater for control of fluoride and arsenic under a variety of local conditions.

I’ll be blogging here during the trip so please feel free to make use of the comments section with questions and input.

·      Optical methods for surrogate monitoring and prediction of PFAS treatment by biochar

The situation in Burma continues to be a travesty and humanitarian disaster. You can follow it through reporting by The Irrawaddy, the relief efforts of the Free Burma Rangers, and/or Myat’s FB page.

Myat is on the front lines of battle for peace and democracy in Yangon and so is justifiably indisposed and excused from the tedious work of converting her thesis research on biochar treatment of per-/poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in various source waters into peer-reviewed journal papers. But what I want to report to you on her behalf is that she has performed some of the most illuminating and transformative research on adsorption and experimental modeling to-date.

We just submitted a paper to Water Research that addresses two of the greatest challenges facing adsorption processes for water treatment to control organic micropollutants such as PFAS. One challenge is the cost and analytical sophistication required for monitoring individual pollutants – Myat’s research established a quantitative basis for use of optical parameters as cost-effective surrogate measures for PFAS adsorption to biochar.

A second challenge is the lack of correspondence between laboratory studies and real-world treatment system performance. Myat’s work enabled “hacking” of some longstanding barriers to provide accurate predictions of real-world system performance from rapid, lab-bench-scale studies.

As this paper moves through the pipeline I will be working to translate the findings and fit them into Chapter sections in a usable format.

·      Debating poverty, development, and the role of experts

Lastly, I want to turn to themes more philosophical and up for debate. A friend/colleague and I recently published a short Commentary in The Lancet – Global Health on, what I suppose could be termed, a conceptualization of the political-economic barriers to the achievement of water-sanitation-hygiene (WASH), clean cooking, and other sustainable development goals.

What prompted our Commentary was a Viewpoint published in January entitled “Towards safe drinking water and clean cooking for all.” In this Viewpoint the authors noted that, despite decades of effort and several billion dollars spent annually, public health interventions – for example, to provide safe drinking water and clean cooking – in poor communities rarely succeed. To remedy this problem, the authors propose changes in the mode and scale of service delivery, such as a shift away from household-level intervention to utility-scale means for providing safe water, sewage treatment, and clean energy. There’s nothing extraordinary about this proposal – it’s been discussed and debated in the “sustainable development” sector for a while now.

What we found salient about the Viewpoint – remarkable enough, in fact, to publish our own Commentary on it – was how unintentionally revealing the article is regarding the gulf of comprehension that exists between global health and development experts and the day-to-day circumstances of poverty that characterize the lives of people targeted by public health and development interventions.

The Viewpoint authors acknowledge that “public health researchers (ourselves included) have had an oversimplified understanding of poverty; our work has not focused on insights into the lived experience of poverty, with its uncertainties, stresses from constant scarcity, and attendant fears.” The Viewpoint, in particular the sections on financial and cognitive stressors for people in poverty, reveals how totally alien the nature of poverty is to global health researchers and development “experts.” Citing the academic literature and calling upon their own “decades of field research, [as well as] insights from development economics, cognitive science, and anthropology, for a deeper understanding of the lived experience of poverty,” the Viewpoint authors make profound pronouncements such as that people who are poor face challenging and uncertain tradeoffs for how to spend meagre income, and “worry about their children, the onset of a health emergency, and...about their tenuous access to water and sanitation.”

It’s a good thing we have prestigious journals like The Lancet and highly credentialed (and highly paid) experts at elite universities to reveal such transformative insights as “poor people worry about their kids.” Good thing we have interdisciplinary research teams of PhD economists, anthropologists, and cognitive scientists to discover that experiencing constant economic insecurity causes – you guessed it – “cognitive stress.” 

My friend/collaborator Riley and I got so irked by this we thought we’d volley back with a state-the-obvious analysis of our own. Namely, that an affluent upbringing followed by elite college/university attendance and subsequent accumulation of wealth and professional status does little to confer understanding of what it is like to be poor and underprivileged.

Both Riley and I have worked in global health and sustainable development as participants in the professional sector (e.g., as researchers in academia) as well as at the grassroots level (e.g., as consultants to community-based organizations). From this dual vantage point, we observe the effects of systemic and class-based barriers to the success of global health and development interventions that are not widely acknowledged within the professional sector.

Our vantage point makes clear that poverty and affluence are not separate phenomena but are “two sides of the same coin,” begetting and reinforcing one another. 

Since the era of colonialism and continuing today, the affluence and privileges of academic and professional class elites have accumulated at great cost to the poor and to ecosystems around the world. The credentials we obtain from prestigious universities and the high-status positions we hold as “experts” in the professional sector are by-definition exclusive of the poor and underprivileged. We find ourselves in a paradox where the career success and “upward mobility” we are expected to pursue further divide us from the context and conditions we must deeply comprehend if we truly wish to connect with and serve the poor.

Accordingly, we propose that the disparity of life-worlds between technocratic elites working in the professional sector of global health and development and that of the underprivileged and impoverished around the globe constitutes a major barrier to successful poverty alleviation and transformational health outcomes for the poor. An alternative “solidarity” approach is needed to heal the divide, which is the punchline of our Commentary.

Well, that was a long setup to a short Commentary. We wrote this with the intention of provoking reflection, discussion, and debate in the global health and sustainable development sector, which is currently experiencing an existential crisis since most of its interventions fail to achieve the expected results. I’d be interested to hear what readers think, and specifically if you foresee biochar water treatment succeeding or failing in this context.