Connecting With Communities

Connecting With Communities
By Ashleigh Mattern

Engaging and educating through research

Of all the work Lalita Bharadwaj (BSc’89, MSc’93, PhD’97) has done over the past 10 years, she says developing a participatory approach to research that benefits communities by addressing specific issues is one of the most exciting aspects.

“When I look back at my own research, a lot of it was bench science focused,” she said, “and although I was looking at mechanisms of disease that could inform decisions around therapy and treatment for cardiovascular ailments, it wasn’t really connecting to the people most affected by these particular diseases or these environmental situations.”

Bharadwaj says her path to becoming a toxicologist researching environmental contaminants in water supplies was “rather convoluted.” She has a bachelor of science in physiology, a master of science in pathology, a doctorate in toxicology, and postdoctoral training in respiratory medicine and molecular cell biology.

Her areas of research changed as different subjects piqued her interest. She started her academic career researching the causes and effects of heart disease, later changing her focus to the effect of free radicals on the vascular system, which led to an interest in the toxicity of free radicals.

So far, studying the adverse effects of chemicals has stuck, although she now studies water systems rather than human bodies.

Bharadwaj’s first position at the University of Saskatchewan was with the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture, and this was where she had her first introduction to participatory research. She had the opportunity to work with a hydrogeologist from the Saskatchewan Research Council who was developing partnerships with First Nations communities, looking at waste disposal practices and potential exposures to contaminants through water supplies. She interviewed the chief, council elders, and community members about waste disposal issues in their community.

“I had an epiphany or a paradigm shift in my own thoughts about how research should be conducted,” she said.

While she believes there’s nothing wrong with pure inquiry-based science, she feels that a research question developed by an expert can benefit from the insight of the populations affected by the issue. Not only does their input help develop research questions and objectives and shape future research, it also helps generate research that benefits the community.

“So it’s really applied and meaningful to them, as opposed to research that might just be published in a journal and left in that journal without public access.”

Bharadwaj thinks participatory research is an important aspect of any study that affects the larger population, such as the shale gas industry.

“I feel that it’s an obligation—morally, ethically, but also in terms of research—to ask people in those communities who might be affected by environmental problems, or decisions around water resources, or even just extractive resources. [It’s a researcher’s role] to consult with the public to understand those issues and direct the research to answer the questions that are important to the community.”

Bharadwaj examines water samples in Peru.

Bharadwaj examines water samples in Peru.

Research done in this way not only improves the quality of the research, it also benefits the community, said Bharadwaj, because there’s a reciprocal sharing of information.

In all of her work, she tries to implement community education into the research. She and her students have several research projects involving First Nations communities in Saskatchewan. They are studying the impact of water regulations on First Nations health, the impacts of water crisis in First Nations communities, and studying the links between drinking water and health on First Nations reserves, looking at groundwater quality and potential sources of contamination.

In working with the Muskoday First Nation, just south of Prince Albert, Sask., she had a graduate student go above and beyond the research requirements by working with the school to develop a curriculum about water, specifically as it relates to the community.

The curriculum includes creating awareness of sustainable water resources, some of the issues around contamination and water stewardship, examples of good water quality and bad water quality, and using hands-on lab experiments where the students grow plants from water with different types of metals in it to see the effects. “I always like connecting with youth,” she said.

As a result of her work with First Nations communities in Saskatchewan, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has created an environmental working group whose members now meet four times a year to discuss environmental issues, including water.

Perhaps due in part to the participatory style, Bharadwaj’s work often has impacts beyond her research. In 2009, she and Peggy MacLeod (BSN’89, MN’91) from the College of Nursing went to the Amazonas region of Peru to conduct situational analysis and a needs assessment for water security in the region, meeting with representatives from the government and members of the community.

As part of their research, they worked with the Peruvians to develop some strategies to help them mitigate issues that arose during workshops. They also discovered that the region had no capacity to measure microbes in their drinking water.

“Microbial contamination is always considered a primary concern in terms of water quality, and this whole region in Peru did not have the capacity to measure E. coli in their water samples.”

Through the Rotary Club of Saskatoon, they found funding to provide the region with the equipment needed to better monitor their water.

She went back to Peru in 2011 with Robert Patrick from the Department of Geography and Planning to conduct a study in the Ancash region, looking at the capacity for integrated water resource management at the local level.

Earlier this year, she went with Karsten Liber, director of the Toxicology Centre, to discuss a biomonitoring project and to assist in building a research and knowledge exchange in the area of aquatic toxicology. She plans to return again this spring.

Bharadwaj is currently working on five research projects in addition to her work as an associate professor with the university’s School of Public Health. She admits that’s she’s busy but said it’s a good kind of busy.

Including students in her research may add some work, but it’s an important part of the process. “It just creates another avenue to learn more. I always say my students are smarter than me—they teach me.”

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