Microbial water quality - the devil and the redeemer

Wednesday, 16 November, 2011

Professor Gillian Lewis, an expert in microbial water quality, will deliver her inaugural lecture as professor at The University of Auckland on Monday 21 November.

Professor Lewis leads the environmental microbiology research group at the School of Biological Sciences and is also head of the school. Her work focuses on applied freshwater ecology, in particular the microbiology and restoration of degraded water bodies. She is also well known as a commentator on water-quality issues. Her inaugural lecture will look at what we know about the microbes that contaminate or purify water and how we can use this knowledge to manage our water resources.

“Water is a common good and one of the fundamental needs and cultural rights of an individual,” she says. “As a society we expect that we will have free access to water of excellent quality and, at very least, safe for the uses we envisage.”

“Microorganisms - specifically pathogenic bacteria, viruses and protozoa - are major contamination issues in water because of the actual or implied infection risk they pose to water users. Managing microbial contaminants in water has considerable economic implications, both in terms of the cost of drinking and wastewater treatment and in the enactment and enforcement of environmental controls.

“The management of microbial water quality has passed through a progression of understanding with triggers for action from visible contaminants, through prescriptive pass failure measures, to predictive risk assessment. The thinking that has predicated this transition is an ecologically based understanding of the sources of microbial contaminants, organism response in water and the behaviour and expectations of water users.”

“On the other side of the aquatic microbial ledger are the natural communities of organisms which are a driving component of water ecosystems. These communities provide much of the water purification processes that we identify as a critical ecosystem service. We have only just begun to build our understanding of the function and implications of these communities for our aspirations for water use.”

In her lecture Professor Lewis will use her own studies of aquatic microbial ecology to consider where our current insights and ongoing research will lead in the sustainability and management of water resources.

Professor Lewis has held academic appointments at the University of Otago, The University of Auckland and Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, as well as working as a visiting lecturer at the University of North Carolina and an environmental scientist at URS New Zealand Limited. She has provided advice on water quality to government agencies such as the Ministries of Health and Ministry for the Environment. Among her many roles with professional bodies, she is a former president and vice president of the New Zealand Microbiological Society and a mentor in the Women in Science leadership program.

Professor Lewis’ talk is part of The University of Auckland’s 2011 Inaugural Lectures for new professors. It will be held in lecture theatre BLT100 in the Old Biology Building, 5 Symonds Street at The University of Auckland from 6.00 pm on Monday 21 November. The talk will be preceded by refreshments at the School of Biological Sciences Common Room in the Thomas Building, 3a Symonds Street, from 5.00 pm. It is open to the public and free of charge and anyone is welcome to attend.

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