Former Intern Embarks on Collaborative Research to Make Drinking Water Safer

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Former Stroud Center intern Kristen Jellison, Ph.D., is now an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Lehigh University. Photo ©

Carving a Career Path

When Kristen Jellison, Ph.D., started her internship at Stroud™ Water Research Center in the summer of 1996, she wasn’t sure where to go in her career. She had just finished her junior year at Cornell. The previous summer, she’d interned with an environmental consulting firm. “I didn’t like it at all, so I decided to give research a try,” she said during a recent interview.

While an intern in the Stroud Center’s dissolved organic matter and microbial ecology lab led by Lou Kaplan, Ph.D., Jellison got her first taste of investigative scientific research.

She was immediately hooked.

Most of her time was spent either in the field collecting groundwater and streamwater samples or in the lab analyzing those samples for a variety of water-quality measures. “It was all new to me,” she recalled, and the more she learned about the research process, the more questions she had.

“I got to see firsthand how scientists develop research questions and how they use data to answer those questions. The Stroud Center is where I fell in love with the idea of being able to do that myself.”

It had been a fun summer at the Stroud Center and one that shaped Jellison’s career path and research philosophy.

“I learned that if you want to ask a real-world question, you need to go out into the real world to collect data, and what I loved about my time here was how nature was our laboratory. … I saw the multidisciplinary approach and how the principal investigators worked together on projects, and I took that approach with me in my career.”

Jellison decided to pursue a graduate degree to reach her new career goal. After Cornell, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from MIT. “I was excited about being able to design my own approach to collecting data and then figuring out what this new information might reveal.”

Dirty Water is a Real-World Problem

Her interests led her to research how to prevent the transmission of waterborne diseases in water-supply and sanitation systems.

“I’m interested in learning how to make water safe to drink. That’s not getting any easier as population and development are increasing, particularly in poor countries where there isn’t adequate sanitation.”

Now an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Lehigh University, Jellison is collaborating with Stroud Center scientists Dave Arscott, Ph.D., and Jinjun Kan, Ph.D., on a project for SUEZ. Jellison will lead analyses of water samples that may contain Cryptosporidium, a parasite that can be found in water and cause intestinal illness.

“In some ways, I’m more of an environmental microbiologist in how I think about and approach problems. Environmental engineering tends to focus on designing systems using mathematical formulas and models and pilots. I don’t tend to work that way.”

When Jellison wants to ask a real-world question, she goes into the field — into the real world — to answer it.