UC Scientist Builds Cultural Bridges Over Troubled Waters

The National Science Foundation just tapped the skills of UC water quality researcher Dan Oerther for a recent international effort to rebuild U.S.-Arab ties.

Amidst Operation Iraqi Freedom, Oerther and four other U.S. researchers (as well as a handful from Europe) traveled to Morocco, taking the lead in a campaign to ensure that this Arab country, its neighbors and other nations have the ability to ensure water purity in coming years.

Oerther, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, was in Morocco from April 14-25 where he served as the co-organizer for a hands-on workshop on the most advanced means – using DNA – to find harmful bacteria in water supplies  His work there and that of the other U.S. scientists -- sponsored by an NSF grant -- focused on training more than 50 university faculty and students from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro. 

“When we were planning this workshop, 11 U.S. scientists were going to go.  The numbers dwindled as the war in Iraq escalated.  In the end, four other researchers and I went from the United States.  It was a little nerve wracking because the other four were e-mailing me that they would go so long as I, as co-organizer, was going.  I did feel the weight of that responsibility.  If things had turned out differently, we might have been in a very lonely spot,” Oerther recalls.

an archaeological site outside Rabat

an archaeological site outside Rabat

One of the reasons he risked potential “hot water” to travel into the Arab world while U.S. forces fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime was his steadfast faith that scientists are sometimes the best cultural ambassadors.  Explained Oerther, “I went because science and technology are good ways to do cultural exchanges.  Whatever our nationality or background, scientists have to work together.  We must have the patience and the willingness to communicate for the benefit of our common work.  There is always that level of respectful interaction.”

And that’s just what Oerther found and more.  At first, he half-expected to experience open hostility but never found that to be the case.  “The people and the culture were just the best.  The people were genuinely kind.  Morocco is generally considered a moderate country, and most of the people were relieved to see Saddam Hussein removed from power.  The greatest concern centered on a prolonged U.S. occupation in Iraq.”

In fact, Oerther said the trip was thrilling because the North African and Eastern European academicians and students wanted to squeeze every bit of knowledge possible from the event which was co-sponsored by the NSF, UNESCO (United Nations Education Scientific & Cultural Organization, the International Cell Research Organization and the International Center for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology.   All the participants listened with intensity because time was so limited.  “They wanted to pick your brain for all it was worth,” he said.

Indeed, Oerther discovered that the challenges of the trip had nothing to do with Moroccan reactions to him as an American but rather to his own stereotypes about living and working conditions.  He’d half expected to find a less-than-adequate infrastructure in terms of roads, transportation, utility and water systems.  Instead, he found that conditions there equaled those common to southern Europe -- with a few unique twists.

He recalls, “We drove up to the National Center for Microbiology in Rabat (the capital).  While the lab space was adequate, the building was surrounded by tall grass as well as cats, dogs, chickens, roosters and goats.  Occasionally, one of the animals would get inside and run between our legs while we were demonstrating our DNA techniques for detecting microbials in water.”

Oerther, who was asked to help organize and lead the conference because he led a similar NSF conference for U.S. scientists last spring and because he teaches a course in UC’s College of Engineering that focuses exclusively on using bacterial DNA to identify different contaminating strains, says that the training offered by the team of U.S. and European scientists should quickly make a difference.  Traditionally, he explained, U.S. scientists grew bacteria in a Petri dish in order to determine what kinds and in what amounts such bacteria was contaminating water.  Then, scientists here moved on to isolating bacterial DNA in order to determine the nature and amounts of contaminants found in a particular water source.  The DNA testing can be completed within hours rather than weeks.  To their advantage, Oerther said, other nations are simply skipping the slower “Petri-dish” method altogether and jumping in feet first in using DNA testing methodology.

“I liken it to the communication field.  In this country, we could afford and did build a telephone infrastructure and network.  Then, cell phones came along, and while we still use the old phone system, we really don’t have to.  Other countries, that were never able to afford the old, extensive, landline phone system are skipping that phase altogether.  They’re going straight to wireless technology without ever having to spend capital on a ground system.  It’s the same way with water-testing technology and methods.” 

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