Research by an OU [Oklahoma University] graduate student that helps reduce the fluoride levels in water, which causes bone deformations after prolonged drinking exposure, won a fellowship with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental science graduate student Laura Brunson received the EPA Science to Achieve Results fellowship, which offers an approximate $120,000 stipend over three years for living and research, according to a press release.

“I didn’t really expect to win. You know, you set out to write a good application and try the best you can, but it’s really competitive and there are lots of people all around the country doing really awesome research,” Brunson said. “So, I was pretty excited. It’s good for me to know I can pay my rent, but it also helps my professor because these are expenses he would have had to cover.”

Brunson’s research looks at ways to remove fluoride from water in developing countries, primarily Ethiopia because of connections formed with professors there in the summer of 2009, Brunson said. She is currently working with them to locate a specific area with specific needs to test her filtration methods.

“Our philosophy is that you can’t just walk into a country and say, ‘Let’s go find a rural village for this project,’” Brunson said. “You really need to work with people living and working in Ethiopia and who know a community that needs help and would be good to work in.”

She also returned to Ethiopia in summer 2011 to work with the professors on locating a village, she said.

About 200 million people in the world, including 14 million in Ethiopia, drink water with high levels of fluoride, she said. It is also prevalent in China, India, the Rift Valley region of Africa and even parts of the U.S.

Too much fluoride can cause bone deformities and darkened teeth, Brunson said. These physical conditions can limits people’s marriage options, as well as their success in finding public jobs. Bone deformities also can cause pain and limit physical labor.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with less expensive technologies that can be produced locally rather than be manufactured and then shipped,” she said. “There are a couple of techniques that some communities are using, but there’s something wrong with all of them – they produce a lot of waste or only remove fluoride up to a certain concentration … or it’s difficult to get the chemicals needed.”

Brunson tests new methods in her lab, particularly a filtration system using an aluminum coating, she said. She also experiments with filtration columns, both in Ethiopia over the summer and in the lab right now. By doing this, she can see if lab results are consistent with actual community results and whether her methods are indeed viable ones.

“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a good method of estimating without having to build a 1000-liter system that would be incredibly expensive and would require lots and lots of water to test,” Brunson said.

Brunson was a business undergraduate at OU and now teaches a class in social entrepreneurship with the business college, she said. She earned her Master’s in environmental science from OU as well.

When applying to graduate programs, Brunson had a vague idea that she wanted to work with water but did not know in what specific area, she said. She consulted with professor David Sabatini, who was creating the OU Water Technologies for Emerging Regions Center at the time, and realized water sanitation was something she could be passionate about.

“This award recognizes Laura’s unique abilities, contributions to date and future potential as an international leader in her field,” Sabatini said in a statement. “We are so fortunate to have her as part of the WaTER Center team where she is making significant contributions to improve on lives of those living in poverty in Ethiopia.”

The center was founded in 2006 by Sabatini to find methods for providing clean drinking water around the world, according to its website.