UMF student tracks deadly bacteria in Africa

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FARMINGTON – A two-person team from the University of Maine at Farmington conducting water quality research in Africa came home last week, after a month of living and working in very challenging conditions.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry David Heroux and Abby Pettitt, an undergraduate student from Waterville, spent more than three weeks in Zambia, testing water sources for Escherichia coli bacteria. Better known as E. coli, the bacteria can be an indicator of fecal contamination and overall poor water quality.

Pettitt, 20, will be a senior in the fall. Working on psychology, biology and pre-professional health majors at UMF, she said that the trip was “incredible.”

Abby Pettitt bonds with a baby from the orphanage on her daily walk in the African village of Kaoma.

“It was completely world-altering,” she said. “Incredible in every sense of the word.”

Heroux and Pettitt went over with members of the WISE Zambia organization, a non-profit group which has been particularly concerned with helping the town of Kaoma, in western Zambia. WISE has made it a mission to provide better education and health services for the 12,000 inhabitants of Kaoma, after the founders met some of the residents in 2001. They have built a women’s center, and help support an orphanage and a community school.

Pettitt said that her research project, focusing on the levels of contamination in Kaoma’s drinking water, often took her to the orphanage, where she met some “incredible people, amazing kids.” Pettitt had to rely on a preliminary test kit, specially created for field work in difficult conditions, to collect data. Fortunately for her project, but unfortunately for the people in the town, the team found high levels of E. coli contamination.

“Their slides were really gross,” she said.

Furthermore, many residents seemed unwilling to boil their water, the cheapest and best way to kill most harmful organisms.

“It’s not that they don’t necessarily have the resources,” Pettitt said, “because boiling is pretty cheap. The person who put it best when I was there was a man who said, ‘my father drank this water, his father drank this water, I have drank this water and will continue to drink this water. And my children will drink this water.’ And that was it.”

Some locals were more likely to believe their neighbor had utilized witchcraft than a microscopic bacteria from the local pump was sickening them. Therefore, Pettitt believes that creating a safe place for Kaoma’s residents to get water would be the best way to impact the problem. The good news is that when she tested water from some boreholes drilled deeper into the earth than local wells, she found clean water. The problem is, these boreholes are far from where Kaoma’s residents live. Pettitt believes drilling more centrally-located water holes is the answer, and says is looking beyond her research project to ways to make that happen, perhaps through the WISE organization.

Like many people who have spent time in a developing country, Pettitt says that the readjustment back to Waterville and Farmington has been an abrupt one. Driving back to UMF was “pretty strange.” In the end though, she’s happy she had to the opportunity to go.

“Oh my God, yes,” Pettitt said, “a thousand times yes.”

Kaoma village community well that was tested by UMF student Abby Pettitt’s undergraduate research project.

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