WSU research group receives NSF award for collaborative research on the interdependency of drinking water and health systems

A research team at Wayne State University recently received a four-year, $1.57 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for its project, "Water and Health Infrastructure Resilience and Learning." The award is part of a multi-institutional $2 million collaborative project funded under NSF's Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes program.

The project -- which includes examining drinking water and public health systems -- will provide new insights as to how these systems interact, with a focus on crisis events. The team will also explore how these systems learn about and adapt to changes and how the public engages with these systems.

Shawn McElmurry, Ph.D., associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and Matthew Seeger, Ph.D., professor of communications and dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, will lead the multi-institutional team. The project also includes researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina.

"This project builds on previous work conducted in Wayne County and Flint, Michigan," said Seeger. "We learned a great deal about how water systems function under stress and how communities respond. This grant will allow us to extend that understanding."

The project will assess how different kinds of disruptions, from routine challenges to large-scale disasters, shape the community's relationship to water systems. The project also aims to understand how tightly coupled interdependent systems such as water and public health can help enhance resilience.

Study data will include interviews with managers of water utilities and public health agencies. It will also include a national survey to understand how well water and public health infrastructures can adapt to future challenges. Information gained from project partners and the national survey will be used to identify factors and develop models to enhance resilience of the two systems.

"Our multidisciplinary team gives us the ability to study these systems from multiple perspectives," said McElmurry. "We learned the value of this in Flint, where changes in water quality impacted more than just the water distribution system. Our team includes political scientists, sociologists, disaster researchers, epidemiologists and water engineers, giving us many tools for examining the complexities of water and health systems."

The overall goal of the project is to promote access to cleaner, safer drinking water for all communities, including the socially and economically disadvantaged. Collaborations with the Water Research Foundation, National Association of County and City Health Officials, American Indian Mothers Inc., the Wayne County Health Department, and others will assist in conducting the study and translating research results to new practices and policies that reduce the burden of disease in vulnerable populations. The project will also provide training for students, including underrepresented minorities, in STEM-related fields.

For more information about the National Science Foundation, visit


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