Alexandria Boehm is a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at Stanford. She received a B.S. in engineering and applied science from Caltech and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California Irvine. She studies sources, fate, and transport of waterborne pathogens, as well as their health effects. Her research goals are […]
She serves as an Associate Editor of Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T) and Environmental Science & Technology Letters(ES&T Letters), and a thrust lead of ReNUWIT: the NSF-funded urban water engineering research center.
In this interview, I talk to Professor Alexandria Boehm about her area of research, how this has changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how she is balancing her work and personal commitments in 2020.
Can you please tell us about your area of research?
I am interested in pathogens in the environment including their sources, fate, and transport in natural and engineered systems. I am interested in understanding how pathogens are transmitted to humans through contact with water, feces, and contaminated surfaces. I carry out applied research focused on problems in both high income and low-middle income countries with the overarching goal of designing and testing novel interventions and technologies for reducing the burden of disease.
I am also interested broadly in coastal water quality where my work addresses the sources, transformation, transport, and ecology of bio-colloids – specifically fecal indicator organisms, DNA, pathogens, and phytoplankton – as well as sources and fate of nitrogen. This knowledge is crucial to formulating new management policies and engineering practices that protect human and ecosystem health at the coastal margins.
How has this changed in 2020, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has brought a surge of interest in the behavior of viruses, specifically coronavirus, in the environment. My research has focused primarily on the non-enveloped viruses as these are typically the types of viruses we worry about in water and wastewater.
Since the pandemic, my research group, in collaboration with others, has started to work with enveloped viruses including SARS-CoV-2. In fact, we started a large collaborative project (in partnership with Krista Wigginton at the University of Michigan) to study SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, and how its concentrations there correlate with COVID-19 infections in a community. We are also conducting a study to quantify the transfer efficiency of enveloped versus non-enveloped viruses from surfaces to fingertips; and we are planning to study how sunlight causes enveloped viruses to decay in water.
How has your/ COVID-19 research developed as 2020 has progressed?
When we started our work in late February, we had no idea how quickly the field would advance. The most advancement has been in wastewater-based epidemiology. I would estimate there are about 50 Principal Investigators across the U.S., and many others globally, actively engaged in this specific research area. When we started our work, we didn’t even know for sure we would detect the viral RNA in wastewater. Now we know it is readily detected as the viral RNA is shed in feces of infected patients, and our efforts are focused on how to make the best measurements and how to interpret them.
How do you keep the science that is being generated in relation to COVID-19 consistent, and keep standards up?
That is a challenge for sure. As a researcher, there is a tension between rushing to obtain and share results to help with the pandemic response and being careful and meticulous in our work. In our work, we strive to be slow and steady and provide data we can stand behind. We do not think providing preliminary, incomplete data to policymakers, or government partners is very useful, especially under these circumstances.
As an associate editor, it is tricky to navigate the COVID-19 field. First, many reviewers who have specialties in relevant research areas are over-committed themselves and overworked. Second, the authors also feel the same tension I do as a researcher between getting preliminary data in the literature and completing very thorough studies. Also, the field is progressing so rapidly, that what was novel last month may no longer be novel. And finally, there is so much “pre-publication” publicity around different studies, that it is difficult to keep the details straight on what is peer-reviewed and what is not.
How are you balancing your work and personal commitments in 2020? What advice would you give to others?
Working from home blurs the line between work and personal life. My 5- and 9-year-old kids come into my home office during all my zoom calls asking for food, water, toys, and help with their online school. Luckily, my husband is here to help with most of these things during the workday. I try to not work in the evening and night and turn my phone on “do not disturb” so I do not get stressful messages close to bedtime that disturb my sleep. At the beginning of the pandemic, I would get “urgent” messages from people late into the night about my university closure, students, and research funding and collaborations, and then I would not be able to sleep. I try to exercise once every day since I spend so much time sitting in front of the computer. I try to get away on a short road trip once per month to completely escape from Palo Alto. My family and I like to camp and enjoy being outside. We also try to go to the beach once per week to boogie board, surf, or tide pool.
Can you please highlight a key paper in your area that has been published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters?
There are two papers published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, that are particularly relevant to my research area. The first is Medema et al. (2020):
Presence of SARS-Coronavirus-2 RNA in Sewage and Correlation with Reported COVID-19 Prevalence in the Early Stage of the Epidemic in The Netherlands
Gertjan Medema, Leo Heijnen, Goffe Elsinga, Ronald Italiaander, and Anke Brouwer
Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2020, 7, 7, 511–516
This is among the first peer-reviewed papers to show that concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater in a large urban area correlate to infections of COVID-19 in the community. This paper motivated additional work around the globe to investigate whether this is the case in other locales. Largely, it seems that it is the case globally and now governments are working to understand the best way to integrate wastewater-based epidemiology into their pandemic responses.
A second is by Bivins et al. (2020):
Persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in Water and Wastewater
Aaron Bivins, Justin Greaves, Robert Fischer, Kwe Claude Yinda, Warish Ahmed, Masaaki Kitajima, Vincent J. Munster, and Kyle Bibby
Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX
Bivins et al. tracked the decay of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as measured by infectivity assays and SARS-CoV-2 RNA as measured by RT-QPCR in water and wastewater. At the present time, the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 via water and wastewater is not suspected to be important. Regardless, it is essential to understand the persistence of the virus in these important matrices.
How have you found the experience of being an Associate Editor for Environmental Science & Technology and Environmental Science & Technology Letters?
It is a lot of work being an Associate Editor for these journals and I estimate I spend at least one hour per day, every day, working on this. As an author, I know how much energy goes into creating a manuscript from the start of research to the submission of the paper and it is a heavy lift to serve as a judge of the resultant work. The reviewers are the jury. The success of these journals is a large team effort that includes the community of editors, authors, and reviewers. It is a privilege to play a leadership role in the community as an Associate Editor.
One of the most rewarding experiences I have had thus far ironically started with providing a rejection letter to a set of authors; and in that rejection letter, I provided some specific advice about an additional type of experiment that could be added to make the paper more relevant to the journal readership. To my surprise, the authors actually carried out the suggested experiment and resubmitted the paper to the journal. Ultimately, it reviewed well and was accepted.
Articles published by Alexandria Boehm include:
Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Persistence and Disinfection of Human Coronaviruses and Their Viral Surrogates in Water and Wastewater
Andrea I. Silverman and Alexandria B. Boehm
Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2020, 7, 8, 544–553
Environmental Engineers and Scientists Have Important Roles to Play in Stemming Outbreaks and Pandemics Caused by Enveloped Viruses
Krista R. Wigginton and Alexandria B. Boehm
Environ. Sci. Technol. 2020, 54, 7, 3736–3739