“People often say that water is the next oil,” says Matt Murrill.
By that analogy he means that water will likely be the next natural resource that we’ll all need and want more of than we can find. As with diminishing oil reserves, the affluent will suffer least and last for want of water, and the poor are already suffering. Murrill sees water quality and access as a human-rights issue, and he’s determined to make a positive difference. He graduated summa cum laude last year from Maryville College, and has decided to make water quality the focus of his research and medical career. He learned earlier this summer that he’s been chosen to receive a Fulbright–Nehru Award that will allow him to study water issues in one of the world’s hardest-hit regions, the Bengal Basin, surrounding Calcutta, in India.
“The U.S. is so fortunate with all our resources and everything,” Murrill says. “But we’re starting to see problems in our own right—in California, with some of the water laws passed out there. There are water-rights issues on the Texas-Mexico border, with farming and agriculture.”
A Fulbright is huge. The awards and fellowships typically recognize a combination of achievement and promise. (Think Joseph Heller, John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, some 39 Nobel Prize winners, etc.) The Fulbright-Nehru Award is funded jointly by the American and Indian governments, and applied to projects where both countries are expected to benefit. For a young scholar—with only a bachelor’s degree from a small school in East Tennessee—to receive this level of recognition is a really big deal. If you need to grasp it in non-academic terms, imagine that after a couple good seasons with the Fighting Scots at MC, he’d been drafted as a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to Murrill, his approach to water issues and the recognition he’s received is fully because of the time he spent in Maryville, not in spite of it. As particularly strong influences, Murrill cites the time he spent studying with and being counseled by history professor Dan Klingensmith and chemistry professors Mary Turner and Angelia Gibson.
“The thing I loved about Maryville is that they are all so encouraging of a student exploring,” he says. “Even if it’s outside what the class is even about. The ethics class that I had with Dr. Klingensmith, I just kind of sat down with him on that first day and just briefly mentioned that I might be interested in Bangladesh and arsenic in general. We talked for 35 minutes on water history and water rights in that part of the world, which he’s done quite a bit of research on. It’s just a very encouraging, nurturing environment to explore these kinds of things.”
The organization with which Murrill has done most of his volunteer work—in Claiborne County, Belize, and Guatemala—is the Presbyterian-affiliated Living Waters for the World.
With the help of his professors, Murrill spent the better part of a semester compiling his Fulbright application. Especially important was claiming an affiliation with an institution already working in the geographic and scientific areas in which Murrill wished to study. The School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University in Calcutta has been the leading laboratory in the study of arsenic contamination in that part of the world’s water. Following an indoctrination that begins in mid-August, JU will be Murrill’s home base for nine months. From there he’ll travel to collect and analyze water and also to examine people at risk of arsenic poisoning via drinking water.
“There are several clues, and they’re more neurological and dermatological,” he says. “There are a lot of interesting skin pigmentations that seem to result from chronic arsenic exposure. There can be a loss of feeling in your hands and feet. Those are the two things they usually look for. Over longer periods of time you begin to see signs of cancer. In the Appalachian community I worked in, there weren’t any real high levels. Some sources were above the EPA limits. But extended exposure increases your risk of certain types of cancer. Especially if you smoke.
“That’s one of the problems with arsenic. It’s clear, odorless, colorless, tasteless. You don’t know it’s there unless people are being effected physiologically. In India and other areas of water scarcity, there are people who spend their entire lives or at least their days waiting to get water at a pump. The problem is two-fold: it’s water scarcity and water quality and both really need to be addressed.”
Murrill says that he’ll soon be launching a website so that peers and others interested in his work in India can follow his progress.