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


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

Team Outcomes to Date

From Source to Tap: DeCIPHERing Risks of Drinking Water in North Carolina (poster by Shabib Ansari, Nicholas Anuzis, Mark Borsuk, Kathleen M. Burns, Ryan Calder, Nadratun Chowdhury, Richard T. Di Giulio, Tyler Felgenhauer, Piyush Gambhir, Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Grace Jeffrey, Rupanjali Karthik, Kailai Lin, Yue Lin, Carly Osborne, Jandé Thomas, Priscilla Wald, Samantha Wind, Jonathan B. Wiener, Clara Yoon, Hannah Zhuang, presented at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)


Faculty Perspectives: Christine Ogilvie Hendren

Faculty Perspectives: Jonathan Wiener

Faculty Perspectives: Mark Borsuk

This Team in the News

Lead, Coal Ash and Aging Infrastructure: Assessing North Carolina’s Drinking Water

“Truly Phenomenal” Doctoral Student and “Unparalleled” Postdoc Honored for Outstanding Mentorship

“This Is Not a Course, It’s a Joint Research Project:” Advice from a Bass Connections Team Leader

Join Us at Motorco for Stories of North Carolina Drinking Water

Our Nearby Dams Worked After Florence. But Someday They Won't

See related teams, DECIPHER: Decisions on the Risks and Benefits of Geoengineering the Climate (2019-2020) and Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (2017-2018).

Person holding plastic cup of water for testing

Team Leaders

  • Mark Borsuk, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Ryan Calder, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Priscilla Wald, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Jonathan Wiener, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Shabib Ansari, Business and Environment
  • Nicholas Anuzis, Masters of Public Policy
  • Kathleen Burns, English-PHD, English-AM
  • Nadratun Chowdhury, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD
  • Piyush Gambhir, Business and Environment
  • Rupanjali Karthik, Master of Laws, MIDP 1 Year Masters
  • Carly Osborne, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management
  • Yinuo Zhang, Master of Environmental Management, Water Resources Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Grace Jeffrey, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB), Global Health (AB2)
  • Kailai Lin, Chemistry (BS), Computer Science (AB2)
  • Jande Thomas, Psychology (BS), Global Health (AB2)
  • Grace Travers
  • Samantha Wind
  • Clara Yoon, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Hannah Zhuang

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Fred Boadu, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Christopher Sims, Center for Documentary Studies
  • Mark Wiesner, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Khara Grieger, RTI International
  • Zachary Hendren, RTI International
  • Danielle Purifoy, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Jennifer Redmon, RTI International