Matt Murrill, a 2008 summa cum laude graduate of Maryville College, was recently notified that he had been selected for a prestigious Fulbright-Nehru Award, which will allow him to study the groundwater arsenic contamination of the Indian state of West Bengal.
He will leave on Aug. 15 for an orientation in New Delhi, India, and expects to spend the next nine months at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, working with scientists in the university’s School of Environmental Studies.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) has labeled the groundwater arsenic contamination of the Bengal Basin as the largest environmental poisoning in history, worse than both the radioactive fallout of Chernobyl and the industrial disaster at Bhopal,” Murrill said. “Some research suggests that up to 26 million people in West Bengal and 77 million people in Bangladesh are at risk of drinking water with arsenic levels greater than the WHO maximum permissible limit.
In addition to water sampling and testing in the laboratory, Murrill expects to study the historical and socio-cultural aspects of the contamination. Looking at the problem holistically, he believes, is the best way to implement long-term solutions.
“Generally, arsenic is associated with geologic sources; however, there are many situations globally where human activity causes or exacerbates the problem,” he explained. “While a consensus has yet to be reached on the exact source of groundwater arsenic in the Bengal Basin, it is widely thought that arsenic is present naturally in the sediment and released under certain biological and chemical conditions.”
According to Murrill’s research, arsenic-contaminated drinking water afflicts not only South Asia but other regions including Chile, the Western United States, Appalachia, Mexico and Canada. Chronic exposure to this heavy metal is associated with a myriad of health problems, like atherosclerosis, peripheral neuropathy, skin lesions and various types of cancer.
Murrill is believed to be the first MC student or recent graduate to be awarded a Fulbright.
“Almost every single Fulbright Fellowship at this level goes to a recent graduate of an Ivy League or similarly well-known - and similarly-priced - college,” said Dr. Dan Klingensmith, associate professor of history who was a Fulbright Scholar in 2007 and advised Murrill through the Fulbright application process. “It’s a competitive grant, in short, and I’m delighted and proud that one of our students did so well and that I could be a part of it.”
Murrill has never been to India but became interested in the complex cultures and beliefs of India while interning at the University of Rochester during the summer of 2007. There, he joined a laboratory family of four Indian molecular biologists. Through them, he said, he “fell in love” with the country and its culture. Murrill recently rejoined this group of scientists and will be working in their laboratory until he departs for India.
It was in a physical chemistry laboratory during his junior year that he first learned that Bangladesh had the worst groundwater arsenic levels in the world. Murrill’s professor in that lab, Dr. Mary Turner, assistant professor of chemistry, had her students examine the adsorption of arsenic to magnetic nanoparticles, a project that her former mentor at Rice University had worked on as a potential purification method for arsenic-contaminated drinking water. During that four-week project, Murrill said he became “captivated” by this public health calamity, reading numerous journal articles and books on the subject.
Taking Klingensmith’s ethics class during the January of 2008, Murrill was deeply challenged by a question the professor had posed to all students - What do you want your life’s legacy to be?
Then came Spring Break, just weeks after that class discussion. Accepting the offer of friend Sarah Terpstra to join her church, First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, in mission work to improve the water in a small community, Murrill boarded a plane headed for Belize. (As a member of the Synod of Living Waters, First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge is a partner in the Synod’s “Living Waters for the World” ministry.)
In Belize, he worked with church members (who were also environmental scientists and engineers) to analyze water quality and install a rainwater collection system. He also spent valuable time talking to community members about their water needs.
From that moment on, Murrill said he has been thinking a lot about water quality. Research into it, he adds, melds several of his passions: nature, medicine and scientific inquiry.
“The issue isn’t just about drinking water,” he explained. “This is a large, multifaceted and complex issue that, to solve, will involve collaborations and partnerships from the local to the global level. So much is affected by water - economic development, health, the future of our environment.”
Murrill knows that he doesn’t have to leave the country to find water problems. In the last year, he has volunteered with Living Waters for the World’s projects in Appalachia. Sampling well water in remote areas of Claiborne County (Tenn.) and communities in Kentucky, Murrill has checked for levels of arsenic, lead and copper in groundwater.
He is confident that lessons learned about water in one area will inform studies in another.
Upon his return to the States in 2010, Murrill plans to pursue either a combined M.D./Ph.D. or M.D./MPH degree focusing on some combination of environmental science, infectious disease and public health.
“I want to commit my life to the remediation of environmental problems that deprive millions of basic human rights,” Murrill wrote in his personal statement. “Months spent learning from the very individuals afflicted by arsenic poisoning as well as the researchers and citizens committed to the improvement of the lives of these very people would undoubtedly continue to shape and mold the path toward my ideal vocation.”