A Peace Corps Volunteer deploys science background to improve water quality in Peru

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By Nicole Bryer
Nov. 12, 2020

The most important thing I learned during my service was how to redefine success. In the beginning, I felt I needed to achieve the objectives of my program quickly and work on big projects to be successful. However, I learned that success doesn’t come very quickly, so I found joy in smaller things, like seeing a family boiling their water consistently or having a good conversation.

After graduating with a duel bachelor's degree in microbiology and sociology from Louisiana State University, I wanted to use my newfound knowledge and gain real world experience for a future career. Serving in the Peace Corps seemed like it would be a great way for me do both of those things while also being a resource to a community abroad.

I served as a Health Volunteer in in a mid-size district of about 4,000 people in northern Peru. Most people in my community were farmers who sold crops in a nearby city, and there was a small health post in my town.

I was assigned to work with a local microbiologist, who was in charge of water sample collection. Together, we worked to address local municipality water treatment needs. I used my knowledge of parasitology and the sterile techniques I learned while working in a lab at LSU to help health post staff analyze water reports. We also worked on campaigns for better treatment and usage in the community. Though this work, not only was I able to help improve water quality and sanitation in our area, but I also gained valuable field experience.

Primarily, I worked with the municipal water authority and water committee members to assess water systems. We were to come up with an action plan to maintain or improve the water system and water quality for 15 communities. I met with water committee members from each community to assess their water needs and discussed plans to address those needs. Most communities wanted help maintaining their water system, treating water to prevent parasitic infection, and exploring better water usage and storage techniques.

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Members of the municipal water authority and the community inspect the community reservoir.

I also assisted my community with human waste disposal, as they used bio-digesters rather than latrines. A bio-digester is a vessel used to break down organic material biologically. The biogas produced in bio-digesters is sometimes captured and used as fuel. I conducted presentations on how bio-digesters work and how to maintain them.

In addition to working with my municipality, I facilitated water, sanitation, and hygiene classes at the local school. The curriculum included proper hand washing techniques, how to construct a personal hand washing station, water treatment and storage techniques, and routes of contamination. The curriculum culminated in the students’ visit to the local water treatment plant, where they collected water samples at varying stages of the water filtration process. They were able analyze samples back at the school laboratory, which helped them understand the importance of water treatment.

I am especially proud of the collaborative work I did with the school. At the end of our project, municipal water authority staff asked students what the community's water needs were and how we could address them. It was great to see how our curriculum helped the students understand their community’s needs, the resources available to them, and actions they could take to improve water quality.

The most important thing I learned during my service was how to redefine success. In the beginning, I felt I needed to achieve the objectives of my program quickly and work on big projects to be successful. However, I learned that success doesn’t come very quickly, so I found joy in smaller things, like seeing a family boiling their water consistently or having a good conversation with a community member.

Being evacuated halfway into my service was difficult initially. I was very sad and found it hard to accept that my service was ending so soon. Many Volunteers in my cohort hoped to return to service eventually. Since then, my friends, family, and fellow Volunteers have been a great support system for me in transitioning back to life in the United States.

My service in the Peace Corps helped me realize that I want to pursue a career in public health. I enjoyed volunteering with community leaders and conducting presentations to help inform the community about public health methodologies and strategies. Currently, I’m focusing on completing graduate school applications for a master’s degree in public health.

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