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Unsafe drinking water affects communities all over the world, from Kentucky to Kenya. Dr. Jason Marion, associate professor in the environmental health science department at Eastern Kentucky University, hopes to make it easier, faster and more cost-effective to test water supplies and reduce water-borne illnesses in poor communities, war zones and developing countries.

Like some of the world’s greatest innovations, Marion’s Innovation Fund project came about under time and resource constraints. While studying water supplies in western Kenya, Marion said, several community leaders asked him the same question: “Can you help us test our water?” Current water testing methods for E. coli require bulky, expensive equipment, making them impractical for areas most in need. Additionally, most tests require samples be sent to a lab — testing can take weeks. Frustrations with that system prompted him to search for a simpler solution.

“We can’t fix the problem on our own,” said Marion. “No single university can. But what can we do to help? We’re empowering people with the ability to collect data.”

Marion’s proposed approach, similar to other test methods, uses a unique bacterial growth medium that is mixed into a water sample. Any E. coli bacteria present in the sample should cause the sample to glow within six hours, one-fourth of the time required for the other methods. All needed materials can become an inexpensive, portable kit.

Jason Marion in the lab, March 2019Marion’s Appalachian roots first introduced him to clean water issues. He recalled hearing stories as a child about the challenges his father’s family faced growing up in southeast Kentucky. Unsafe drinking water was one of those challenges; many families in that area still don’t have affordable access to public water treatment.

“Those things were always in my mind,” said Marion. He went on to study sickness related to inland swimming beaches in southern Ohio while earning his doctoral degree in environmental health science at Ohio State University. The techniques he learned from those studies helped him study drinking water later in his career.

It was Marion’s international students, however, who helped him expand his research efforts abroad. During his first year as an EKU faculty member, two graduate students from Kenya proposed a study of drinking water in their home country. Together, they designed the project and earned the EKU Division of Sponsored Programs’ Major Project Award to conduct it. The time Marion has spent with students and their families in their home community has given him a unique research perspective.

“I’ve learned from them, they’ve learned from me,” said Marion. “Other American professors and researchers may not have had the opportunity to experience these problems and come up with these types of solutions. So many people are ignorant of the things that need done until you’ve been in those shoes.”

The project represents a beginning rather than an ending for Marion’s work. He plans to pilot a version of this method to test surface water with the Kentucky Watershed Watch program. Marion is also working toward trademarking and securing funds for further research.


This story appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of EKU Magazine. Read the full issue on the EKU International Alumni Association site.