Grand Challenges Scholar Strives for Equity in Water and Sanitation

May 9, 2019

Elizabeth Griffin CEE ’19 is determined to address the critical issue of water and sanitation access

Elizabeth Griffin in front of rainwater catchment tank

Elizabeth Griffin CEE

Over the course of her four years at Duke, Elizabeth Griffin took full advantage of the diverse learning opportunities available to her as a student of civil and environmental engineering. 

Elizabeth Griffin in La Paz

Early on, she discovered a passion for global and service learning, thanks to her participation in Duke Engineers for International Development. She also studied abroad in Australia, conducted air quality research in Bolivia, and attended national and international conferences. She took courses in global development and health disparities in the United States, and worked as a fellow in a product development shop that creates and commercializes health technologies for low-resource settings. 

DEID team in Uganda

And, she pointed out proudly, she still found plenty of time for Duke basketball. 

Griffin is a National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges Scholar, and all of her experiences at Duke were hung on the framework of a single NAE engineering challenge for the 21st Century: providing access to clean water.

The NAE identified 14 of these challenges in 2008, and in 2013 endorsed the Grand Challenges Scholars Program—co-created by Duke, Olin College and the University of Southern California—to prepare undergraduate students to meet them. Through their participation, scholars help improve sustainability, health, security and the joy of living worldwide. 

The “Grand Challenges” are exactly that: grand, both in intention and scope, and challenging. 

The “Grand Challenges” are exactly that: grand, both in intention and scope, and challenging. Very challenging, in fact. Students who are accepted into the program must complete a portfolio of work showcasing their activities in hands-on research, interdisciplinary learning, entrepreneurship, global experiences, and service-learning in time for graduation. In addition, they must complete an original thesis. 

Griffin’s thesis mapped human exposure to contaminated groundwater around hog farms in eastern North Carolina. “I shifted from lab-based research to spatial analysis using GIS mapping tools for my thesis,” said Griffin. “By making that shift I was able to look at a problem on a much broader scale.” She presented her project—which found higher exposures in Hispanic and African-American families than white families, regardless of income—to faculty to earn the Graduation with Departmental Distinction designation. She earned the Eric I. Pas Award, given to a student with the most outstanding independent study project, in the process. 

"It’s opened up my eyes to broader systemic injustices, especially racial and socioeconomic injustices—not just in the US, but worldwide. I really want to work to address those inequities.”

ELIZABETH GRIFFIN CEE '19

Despite her success in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, she says there were times when she didn’t think she would be able to check all the necessary boxes. 

“The hardest aspect, for me, was the entrepreneurial side of it,” said Griffin. “I’m not business-inclined, so finding opportunities to get entrepreneurial skills was tough for me.” 

hand wash station But with support from her classmates and her advisor, CEE Professor of the Practice David Schaad, she not only completed the program but arrived on the other side with a feeling of tremendous accomplishment, and volumes of skills and experiences she might not have otherwise gathered.

“The Grand Challenges program is a really good way to organize your education and all your extracurricular activities,” Griffin reflected. “I feel like almost everything I’ve done, even activities unrelated to my classes, has tied into this portfolio somehow. It’s a great way to show people the trajectory of your college experience.”

She emphasized that the wide range of experiences also helped her to clarify her own goals and ambitions. Working on a Bass Connections project in Lowndes County, Alabama, where inadequate water infrastructure has triggered a resurgence of hookworm, was particularly illuminating, she said. “It’s opened up my eyes to broader systemic injustices, especially racial and socioeconomic injustices—not just in the US, but worldwide. I really want to work to address those inequities.”

For those students whose interest in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program is piqued, Griffin wanted to remind them of an additional sweetener. 

“You do get up to $5,000 to complete the portfolio,” she said. “This is a huge advantage. I wouldn’t have been able to complete this portfolio without the funding. It offers opportunities to pursue global learning, service learning, travel, research, conferences. It opens up so many doors.” 

Apply to become a Grand Challenges Scholar