Kevin McGuigan, Development Aid Researcher

A typical day? I don’t think I’ve had a typical day in a long time. My working life is split into two almost parallel existences. For the past 4 years, in addition to being a physics lecturer in an Irish medical college, 

I’ve also been running a multi-country study of solar disinfection (SODIS) of drinking water for use in developing countries. SODIS is a household water treatment where contaminated water is stored in ordinary plastic bottles which are placed in direct sunlight for a minimum of 6 hours. 

The action of solar heating and solar ultraviolet light combines to inactivate the microbial pathogens in the water. My research involves health impact assessments (HIAs) of SODIS in Cambodia, S. Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe as well as lab-based research in Ireland, the UK, Spain and Switzerland. My development aid work in the past has included activities as diverse as chasing baboons away from water holes so that I can take water quality samples, to advising the Minister of Health of the Mexican State of Yucatan on how to use SODIS to provide clean water in a post-hurricane disaster situation.

Last week when I was on an inspection visit of the health impact assessment in Cambodia, my day started at 6.30am. 

I’d get up, take my anti-malaria pill, check for overnight bites (mosquitoes and bed-bugs seem to love me more than the locals), check my boots for lizards or scorpions before getting dressed, and then meeting the rest of team for a briefing over breakfast. The team consists of Cambodian field officers and data collectors who work with CARE-Cambodia, a collaborating aid agency.

We pile into the SUV and head out. After an hour we arrive in the first hamlet. These are part of the test group so they have been given plastic bottles for SODIS. 

I check how many participating children are in this hamlet, how many bottles there are and the location where bottles are exposed to sunlight. Through an interpreter I ask if they have any problems or questions. 

The villagers don’t let us leave until after we had a cup of hot tea (it’s getting up to 36°C and very humid). CARE have already conducted background tests on the pump water and water stored in the houses. In other countries I’ve also had to collect samples of the childrens’ faeces for analysis of parasite burden, but luckily it’s not needed here.

We visit about 8 or 9 hamlets in total. We also must pay our respects to the village commune leaders in each location so that they can tell us how many households are participating and what problems they might be having.

After returning to the “hotel” - I use that phrase loosely since there is no running water, air conditioner, mosquito nets or locks on the door - we have a debrief meeting with the team over a communal meal that evening in a local eating establishment and plan tomorrow’s activities. 

Back in the hotel I drag the bed away from the wall since I’ve learned from cruel experience that there are few things more unnerving than a lizard falling onto your head in the middle of the night. 

I’m in bed by 9pm and drift off to the sound of a male gecko telling the local females that he’s somewhere in my room but I’m happy in the knowledge that he’s feasting on the mozzies that otherwise would be feasting on me!

It’s hard but rewarding work that has enabled me to work with some of the most impressive and dedicated people I have ever met. None of this would have been possible were it not for the fact that I was a physicist in the right place at the right time.

Kevin McGuigan

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