DECIPHER: Case Studies in Drinking Water Quality (2018-2019)


The technologies, processes and products we develop have impacts on the environment and our health. Some impacts are intended, and some are not. The policies adopted to regulate the risks of such developments may themselves pose unintended consequences. We can point to examples of product and policy advances intended to deliver benefits by minimizing one target risk, only to uncover later that unanticipated consequences created new risks.

These complexities pose challenges for both private innovation and public oversight. They also present opportunities to improve understanding and decision-making. An important step in enabling such improvements is to understand the interconnected physical, economic, legal and cultural factors along the lifecycle of a set of decisions related to characterizing and managing risks.

Project Description

The goal of Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (DECIPHER) is to improve holistic understanding of health and environmental risks through the design, research and generation of a comprehensive profile motivated by a specific risk and then to expand the scope to include associated contexts, decisions and outcomes.

The Bass Connections project team will focus on a series of decision scenarios related to drinking water quality. Scenarios will be chosen to provide a representative set of contaminants, sources, decisions and affected populations.

The team will bring together research expertise from multiple disciplines to tell the story of past risk-based scenarios on the topic of drinking water. The resulting profile will provide a systematic unpacking of what may have originally been seen as an isolated hazard, but turned out to be more complex, providing context in terms of history, culture, science, social science, uncertainty, regulation, public narrative and trade-offs. Team members will also generate an associated teaching guide for the final profile to enable its use in future courses related to decision-making for health and environmental risks.

Anticipated Outcomes

Final case study profile document with multiple disciplinary modules and associated teaching guide; one or more posters

Student Opportunities

In addition to the technical and policy research, the experience will be augmented with opportunities to engage with the people who have been involved in the decisions being studied. Students will interview case-study experts and meet with invited speakers. Participants may be able to take field trips to visit sites relevant to the selected case studies (e.g., North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Science Advisory Board meetings, Cape Fear River Basin, North Carolina General Assembly).

The ideal composition of the team will be 15-20 undergraduate and graduate students and 2-4 postdocs with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. The work will be carried out in sub-teams of 3-4 people.

Graduate student opportunity: In Summer 2018, a graduate student will conduct initial research on the selected environmental and health risk decision topic to build the skeleton of the case study profile. This is envisioned to include the relevant facts and key decisions of the case studies in broad terms, and to assemble and organize a streamlined set of related reference resources for use throughout the project. This will be paid research; this individual will serve as project manager throughout the year, and will ideally stay on to complete the Summer 2019 tasks, which will involve approximately five weeks of work to finalize and publish the case study profile document.

All students will write reflection papers for each case study, evaluating the decisions actually made at key points, advocating what should have been decided at that time and proposing how to address this problem in the future. Students will research and compile a full case study document that presents the overall history and multiple decision nodes, for use in future education and training courses/exercises.  Students will also engage in reflection/feedback writing exercises, at least once each semester. Grading will be based on the students’ research, decision memos, reflection exercises, class participation and the full case study report.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Fall 2018: Weekly session with rotating content to cover each of the case studies or “decision nodes” in a series of approaches, including relevant topical lectures from experts across the various relevant disciplines, interviews of case study experts, interactive “decision theatre” discussions, reflection sessions; possible field trips; formation of sub-teams
  • Spring 2019: Continue sub-teams’ work on case studies; produce posters and compile final document profiling suite of decisions on drinking water quality


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

See earlier related team, Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (2017-2018).

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Lori Bennear, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
Mark Borsuk, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering*
Marc Deshusses, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment*
Martin Doyle, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
Tyler Felgenhauer, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering*
Lee Ferguson, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
Christine Hendren, Pratt School of Engineering-Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology*
Marc Jeuland, Sanford School of Public Policy
Subhrendu Pattanayak, Sanford School of Public Policy
Alexander Pfaff, Sanford School of Public Policy
Priscilla Wald, Arts & Sciences-English*
Jonathan Wiener, Duke Law*

Graduate Team Members

Kathleen Burns, English-PHD
Piyush Gambhir,
Carly Osborne, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
Liyue Zhang, Master of Environmental Management, Energy and Environment
Yinuo Zhang, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management

Undergraduate Team Members

Grace Jeffrey
Sam June, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
Kailai Lin
Amanda Shorin, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
Jande Thomas
Grace Travers
Clara Yoon

Community Team Members

Khara Grieger, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering

* denotes team leader


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