Bringing safe water to the desert: A Q&A with Susan Vescovi

Women carrying water on their heads through the arid desert landscape. Photo courtesy of JBF (

At the beginning of July, Roshni Barot , Susan Vescovi and Tracy Yang arrived in India’s Thar Desert to work with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF). Master’s students in the Global and Ecological Health Program, the three hope to help assess water quality in the 140 villages served by the foundation. As part of Northwestern’s biomedical engineering program, the exchange fosters problem-solving and collaboration, and gives students hands-on field time to hone their analytical and engineering skills.  Though students cycle through one term at a time, the partnership between JBF and Northwestern will hopefully remain for years to come, and as the first students welcomed by the foundation, Barot, Vescovi and Yang fill an especially important role.

Though busy, Vescovi took time to answer questions for the Global Health Portal on behalf of herself and her fellow students.


How would you describe your surroundings and your new colleagues?

We are currently staying at the Water Habitat Retreat at the JBF, where we are working on our project. It is about 20 minutes away from the city of Jodhpur, so we haven’t had a lot of time to be in the city around local people. Our new colleagues are very nice and have been trying to set us up with all the information we need.

This phase of the project is largely exploratory – what does that mean?

We came into this project with a little bit of an understanding about the scientific work JBF is trying to establish here. We had an initial idea about the work we wanted to do, which was to draw a clearer connection between water quality and health. We did not have much of their scientific data before we came to Jodhpur, but after spending two weeks here we better understand the organization and the how they perform their water quality testing.

How has your past prepared you for this?

The three of us all have very diverse backgrounds. I have an undergraduate degree in biology, Tracy has a undergraduate degree in architecture, and Roshni has an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering. It seems like we have all been able to deliver something different to the project, like drawing skills, past lab experiences, language skills, and general differences in looking at a problem. It’s really funny to see how all of our past experiences sort of click as we tackle this project!

What do you hope to get out of this experience?

I think we are all hoping to contribute to the efforts of JBF. They have done a lot of work with bringing people in the region water and now they want to make sure that the water is safe. Hopefully we can them help focus on different scientific factors that can monitor water and one day establish a strong collection system that can demonstrate the importance of clean water to the people they work with. We are also excited to be getting real hands on experience working with an NGO and seeing how they use scientific fieldwork to promote their efforts.

What do you imagine your contributions to this effort will be?

We are still working hard to find that out. The situation is not as clear-cut as we had originally imagined. We are still making a lot of observations that are important for future students who may continue our project in the future. Our contributions will most likely be laying groundwork for what is possible in the future and helping JBF to look at different types of testing that can form Northwestern student projects in the future.

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