Fulbright Scholar studies water quality in Romania

Barbara Okeke is currently conducting important water quality and water behavior research in Romania as part of the Fulbright Program.

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Fulbright Scholar studies water quality in Romania

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Josie Fischels, News Reporter

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Among various rural and urban communities in Transylvania, Romania, University of Iowa human toxicology graduate student Barbara Okeke will spend the next nine and a half months conducting important water-quality and water-behavior research.

Her research in Romania may be used to improve human health in the area, thanks to the Fulbright Award she received in the spring. Okeke received the award after a rigorous application process with guidance from several UI faculty members.

Okeke said water contamination from nitrites and nitrates, pesticides, and bacteria has been a growing concern in areas of the country in which water sources aren’t regulated by the government.

“Most people in Romania are using private sources that aren’t government-regulated,” she said. “No one knows the amount of contamination that’s in [the water], because there’s no one from the state that’s coming to check it. I thought this would be a unique to give to that community.”

This year, the UI has sent 11 scholars abroad via the Fulbright Program, which sponsors students from institutions across the U.S. every year to participate in education, research, and the arts in other countries, according to the International Programs website. 

“Fulbright is looking not only for academic excellence but also connections abroad,” said Associate Director of International Fellowships Karen Wachsmuth. “You need a strong host affiliation with a project that needs to be done and also a track record of community service and ability to work with people. Fulbright is looking at a person, not only a GPA.”

Coincidentally, Okeke was introduced to the idea of applying for a Fulbright while spending time in Romania on a Minority Health International Research Training Program. There, she learned more about toxic exposures to drinking water and health concerns in the areas of the country that prompted her to continue her research.

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“Even here in Iowa, we’ve had our own nitrate/nitrite scares, so I thought this was an amazing opportunity to take it a step further when thinking about global health,” she said.

Outside of research, Okeke plans on immersing herself in Romanian culture through volunteer work. One program, in particular, she wants to get involved in is the Fulbright Teacher Exchange, which will allow her to learn more about the culture of Romania while also pursuing her passion for improving public health.

RELATED: UI student receives Fulbright Grant to study in Bulgaria

UI biostatistics Professor Kai Wang, who served as a member of Okeke’s dissertation committee while she worked for a Ph.D., has high hopes for Okeke’s future.

“Barbara was a hardworking student; she is very bright,” Wang said. “She finished her Ph.D. in a relatively short period of time and did an excellent job defending her dissertation as a student here.”

Okeke, who will leave for Romania later this week, said she was excited to embark on a new journey in which she will be able to pursue her passion for research and the betterment of human health.

“If you are awarded a Fulbright or any other international awards, you are joining a community of scholars and open-minded people; it’s a whole new network of connections and family,” she said. “I just want other people to know that these opportunities are out there.”

 

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