May 3, 2017

Rianna Murray, PhD candidate in Toxicology and Environmental Health, has received the Lee Thornton Fellowship, which provides support to a University of Maryland doctoral candidate who is in the latter stages of writing a dissertation that serves the public good. 

Ms. Murray’s work focuses on the water quality of private groundwater wells in Maryland. She explains her research: “An estimated one million Maryland residents rely on private groundwater wells for drinking water, particularly in southern Maryland and along the Eastern Shore. Private wells are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and as such these wells are not regularly monitored for contaminants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year approximately one in six people (that’s 48 million people) are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of gastrointestinal illnesses associated with foodborne transmission in the United States. Recent studies have indicated that there are also socioeconomic, agricultural and environmental risk factors for some illnesses that are thought to be solely foodborne, including living in close contact with livestock and exposure to water contaminated with feces. Given that the water quality of private wells in Maryland is not regularly assessed, and that pathogens associated with illnesses (such as Campylobacter and Salmonella) have been detected in groundwater, private wells could be an important non-foodborne transmission pathway for these pathogens. Maryland also has a high concentration of animal farms, particularly those raising broiler chickens, and farm animals may be an important route of transmission of pathogens to humans.

“I will be investigating the water quality of private wells in Maryland and the effect of animal feeding operations (AFOs) on this water quality using fecal indicator bacteria. I will also investigate the combined effects of environmental factors, including drinking water source and proximity to AFOs, associated with the incidence of specific gastrointestinal illness (Campylobacteriosis and Salmonellosis) that are typically thought to be foodborne in Maryland using data from the CDC FoodNet Surveillance System. This work will be included in my final doctoral thesis, which I plan on defending in Spring 2018.”

During her tenure at the University of Maryland, Ms. Murray has served as a graduate administrative assistant (College of Behavioral and Social Sciences), graduate research assistant and graduate teaching assistant (School of Public Health). She has coauthored six scientific manuscripts and was the primary author of a manuscript based on research conducted for her Master of Public Health degree, also completed at UMD. She served as a staff advisor on two Alternative Break experiences during spring break 2015 (Chicago) and 2016 (New York City) and as a Graduate Advisor on two trips with Public Health Without Borders to Sierra Leone. Ms. Murray is vice president for Student Affairs on the UMD Graduate Student Government, and has contributed to the School of Public Health by participating in two faculty searches, acting as the MIAEH student representative for the Dean’s Student Advisory Committee, mentoring undergraduate students in PHWB, and participating in student panels for prospective and newly admitted student orientations. 

Ms. Murray says that while she is passionate about teaching, mentoring and serving the University, these have taken time away from her studies. The Lee Thornton Dissertation Fellowship will provide her with the opportunity to focus solely on her own research, complete her doctoral program, and produce a quality dissertation with publishable manuscripts that contribute to her field of study. 

“I am extremely honored to be an awardee of the Lee Thornton Dissertation Fellowship and I am very grateful to the fellowship committee for selecting me,” she said. “This fellowship will be instrumental in helping me progress to my degree next spring."

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Rianna Murray