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Craftspeople teach Samantha Giffen how they make ceramic water filters from local earth at the Mukondeni Pottery Collective.
July 30, 2015

Students at Work: Waterkeeping in South Africa

  • Amherst
Working with potters in Thohoyandou, South Africa, to create a filtration system that eliminates fluoride from their local water is a win, win, win, win, win situation.

Samantha Giffen, a senior in microbiology and public health, has dedicated her summer to testing ceramic filters that take fluoride out of groundwater. She is stationed in the Limpopo Province, where she is participating in a National Science Foundation program for undergraduates.

Many people in the region drink untreated groundwater from boreholes (wells). Fluoride, present as a natural material in geologic formations, is released from sediment into the groundwater, resulting in levels too high for human health simply from the geochemistry of the aquifers.

The NSF-sponsored Water, Society, and Health program calls upon the skills of local potters to create an ingeniously simple plant-pot-like filter. The potters mix local clay with finely grated sawdust, and when they fire the pots, the sawdust combusts, creating small pores.

Giffen and her colleagues test the water with a fluoride meter at different concentrations to measure the filter’s effectiveness. Their objective is to create something that people in the community will adopt and use.

Working with the potters has given Giffen the unexpected benefit of applied language study: “They teach us a lot of local phrases in Tshivenda. They are really excited when we learn!”

South Africa is Giffen’s second international adventure after she spent fall 2014 in India. Studying in India “flamed my interest,” she says. “It’s different to learn from a textbook as opposed to going abroad.”

“Every place I study helps me to build a versatile toolkit that I can use to be a more effective professional in my field one day.”

Giffen, selected in 2015 for the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program, plans to earn her PhD and do research on bacterial pathogenesis. She has no plans to stop traveling the world in her quest for new knowledge and applying it through service. She says, “I don’t see myself staying in any one place for long.”

Photographs courtesy of Samantha Giffen.