Interdisciplinary Collaboration Drives Change for Mercury Toxicity in the Peruvian Amazon
November 28, 2017
By Joshua Grubbs
This last year our team has actively been working on a project to evaluate the impact of a dietary intervention on mercury toxicity in the Peruvian Amazon. Our progress is the natural product not only of a committed team with passionate mentors, but also the diversity of academic backgrounds represented. True to the Bass Connections model, we proudly bring together the natural and social sciences in order to better understand a problem from all angles and offer a comprehensive solution.
The mechanisms that bring people into contact with mercury are biological and social, and without those perspectives, my knowledge would not translate into a fully effective study or intervention.
For me, the opportunity to study a global health issue through chemistry promised to unite my own disciplines in a meaningful way. But an issue as extensive as mercury toxicity needed more than this. The mechanisms that bring people into contact with mercury are biological and social, and without those perspectives, my knowledge would not translate into a fully effective study or intervention. As a diverse team, my teammates with backgrounds in biology and psychology helped build a better understanding of mercury’s flow through the food chain and how human behavior and motivations shape dietary habits.
During our summer fieldwork, we brought the collaboration from the classroom to the field and applied it to real-world situations by implementing a project that drew from our respective disciplines. The intervention had two equally important components: food basket provisions with locally acquired foods that could potentially mitigate mercury toxicity, and education about mercury and risk factors for toxicity. Both sites received the former, whereas one site participated in both components. The goal was to assess the biochemical efficacy for both groups and to see if complementing the process with positive-reinforcement educational workshops would further improve results.
We measured blood mercury and mercury knowledge pre- and post-intervention in order to paint a more complete picture of the project outcomes. The blood samples are still being tested, but the educational component showed increased knowledge in the group that participated in our workshops. We are excited to see if we can tie our educational insights to biochemical outcomes, but right now have to wait for the lab work to reach completion.
The interdisciplinary nature of the endeavor cannot be emphasized enough. The chemical properties, biological effects and social impact were all critical elements that built upon each other to create a study that reflected the complexity of the real world.
The interdisciplinary nature of the endeavor cannot be emphasized enough. The chemical properties, biological effects and social impact were all critical elements that built upon each other to create a study that reflected the complexity of the real world. We recognize the importance of these perspectives and also acknowledge the many other ones that implicitly contributed to our work. As we continue to push forward with this project and in our future efforts, we will carry along the lessons we learned about the value of interdisciplinary research.
Joshua Grubbs ’18 is a Chemistry and Global Health major who took part in the Bass Connections project team Environmental Epidemiology in Latin America: Research and Policy Development to Reduce Chemical Exposures. He is a member of the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council.
- View the team’s poster, Evaluation of a Dietary Intervention for Chronic Methylmercury Exposure Among Communities in Madre de Dios, Peru.
- Read a related piece, Mercury and Masato: Deliberations from the Peruvian Amazon.
- Save the date for the Bass Connections Fair on January 24.
Photos: Joshua Grubbs conducting fieldwork in Peru; team poster; team members measuring height and weight (from the team poster)