Biochemistry students help NU graduate
keep water system safe in Baghdad © April 23, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

A Norwich graduate, who can't reveal her identity, draped a favorite T-shirt over a chair by a water purification system serving several hundred people in Baghdad, Iraq. Undergraduate students helped her verify the system's meters.

courtesy photoA Norwich graduate, who can’t reveal her identity, draped a favorite T-shirt over a chair by a water purification system serving several hundred people in Baghdad, Iraq. Undergraduate students helped her verify and calibrate the system’s meters.

Hundreds of soldiers and civilians in Iraq have safe drinking water thanks in part to Norwich University and an alumna serving in the war zone.

The former student, who can’t reveal her name or profession for security reasons, is a civilian working for the U.S. government, primarily in Baghdad. Unable to verify the effectiveness of a small water purification plant in the capital city, she contacted Prof. Seth Frisbie from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Norwich in spring 2010. Frisbie set a class of his students to work on the problem. Within weeks, she had a solid protocol to certify that water metering devices were working properly, and the tools to do it.

“We were concerned because the meters to test the water weren’t calibrated properly and we couldn’t get any chemicals to our location to test them,” wrote the graduate. “So now there are a couple hundred folks here who can take showers safely thanks to NU!”

The system uses a reverse-osmosis procedure—forcing water at high pressure through a fine membrane to remove salts and particulate matter—to purify water.

“It’s actually a more complicated name than it needs to be,” said Frisbie, explaining that meters that test the acidity of Baghdad’s city water and the effectiveness of chlorine added as a disinfectant were the ones that required vetting. It’s a process that ties very closely with the work his students are doing in the instrumentation laboratory class, he said.

So now there are a couple hundred folks here who can take showers safely
thanks to NU!

~ Norwich alumnus
working in Baghdad, Iraq

The meters are not necessarily complicated pieces of equipment, according to Jeff DeFelice, one of eight students who worked on the project. It was the location that made it a tricky problem.

“They wouldn’t be able to send someone from the company [to calibrate the meters] because it was in a war zone,” said DeFelice.

The alum, who works frequent 80-hour weeks under the stressful conditions of Baghdad, where threats increased recently due to elections, said they were initially “flying blind” regarding water quality. When help arrived from Norwich, the testing protocol revealed that meter calibrations were pretty far off.

“There aren't any ‘specialized’ people out here along the lines of folks to run the water treatment stuff,” she wrote. “We figured out that no one out here had the expertise to ‘really’ know what they were doing, so we decided to reach out.”

Although she studied sciences at Norwich, the former student had graduated before Frisbie arrived in 2006. A web search revealed the professor had extensive experience working with the mitigation of arsenic in water in developing countries, so he seemed a logical person to start unraveling the problem.

Acting on information traded by email, class members researched the system, wrote up a testing procedure, tracked down the correct water quality test strips and buffer solution kits and mailed the supplies—purchased by Norwich—to Baghdad.

“She won’t have this problem again,” said Justin Michael, a junior biochemistry major from Columbia City, Ind., who called their analysis of the problem “quick and dirty,” but effective. “They weren’t the most advanced [supplies] available, but they will get the job done.”

Both students agreed it was satisfying to help an alumnus of Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, as well as make a small contribution to the war effort.

“It’s nice to see the things we learn in class can be useful in a real situation,” said DeFelice, a senior from Warwick, R.I. Michael called it a fun and rewarding process.

“We’re very grateful that she came to us for help, and we were happy that we were able to,” added Frisbie.