Bordered by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, Lake Victoria is the world’s largest tropical freshwater lake and boasts one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world. 30 million people live around its shores. It is an important source of food, water, industry and recreation but, over the last couple of decades, water quality has greatly diminished as an aggressive invasive plant and potentially toxic algal blooms spread across its surface.
Water hyacinth (aquatic plant) choke the inlet so that our boat cannot reach the pier where the yellow water taxi is docked. Cyanobacteria (foreground) give the water a pea-soup green appearance. Photo by Jessica Corman.
Jessica Corman, a post doctoral researcher at the UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology recently learned that she was one of four UW-Madison researchers to receive a $50,000 seed grant from the Global Health Institute. Her proposed project, entitled “Water, Women, and Fisheries: Addressing Two Ecological Realities Impacting Human Health at Lake Victoria,” will soon take her to Kenya, to study Lake Victoria and the communities that depend on it.
“While we know a lot about how a lake’s water quality can decline, there’s still a lot we don’t know particularly in tropical regions where lakes tend to be understudied,” Corman says. On Lake Victoria, she says, people “are getting their drinking water from the lake, they’re eating fish from the lake, they recreate on the lake. They want clear water, obviously, so it’s a nice way to combine basic science with endeavors to better communities.”
There are two main objectives to the project, Corman says. ” One is getting a better handle on how the communities, particularly the women, around the lake are using the lake. It’s kind of a way to gauge risk assessment. So how often do people go in the water? When they go in the water do they take plants, do they take fish, or do they just wash dishes? It’s looking at things like that.”
The second objective is more along the lines of “basic science” – understanding the ecological relationship between the invasive water hyacinth and the lake’s harmful algal blooms, or HABs. HABs can pose a potent human health threat and Corman is interested in learning more about what’s driving them and how locals may be putting themselves in harm’s way when they’re at the lake. Also, lab studies have indicated that water hyacinth may, in fact, impede HABs, so Corman will investigate if that holds true in a “real world” setting.
Corman plans to head to Kenya this September, where she’ll join Amber Roegner, a “GloCal” fellow from UC-Davis, as they begin their study of three Kenyan communities – one in the industrialized region of Kisumu, another in a more rural setting and the third on an island in the lake itself.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Global Health Institute awarded the “seed grants,” as part of its mission to support initiatives that “improve the health of humans, animals and the planet.” Corman says one thing that makes the GHI’s grants “so cool” is that they allow researchers to combine different areas of study.
“It can be difficult to get funding for project like this in the U.S.,” she says, “because the National Institutes of Health is distinct from the National Science Foundation, which is distinct from the Environmental Protection Agency,” and so on. While those organizations have their niches, Corman says, “when you get into these overlapping ares, that’s when there’s a potential to ask some really cool questions, but maybe not the funding mechanism to ask it.”
The grant highlights something Corman really enjoyed about her graduate work at Arizona State University and continues to enjoy in her current appointment at the University of Wisconsin, she says.
“Here, there’s the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ and, at ASU, it was the ‘new American university.’ And both were this idea that you can do really transformative, awesome science, but embed it in the social context.”
We’ll bring you updates on Corman’s work once she heads to Kenya. Stay tuned for Part II of our “Seed Grant” report, as the CFL was awarded not one, but two of the grants – Next Up: Pete McIntyre explores “Polluted Fish and Cycles of Poverty.”