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Posted July 5, 2011

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Geophysics

Researcher uses geophysics to bring water to African students

Hamilton - It's not often that people associate geophysics with global development, but Madeline Lee, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at McMaster, knows the two go hand-in-hand.

In 2008, Lee signed on to work as a geophysical consultant at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. A year later, she began volunteering at a nearby village, where scarce and contaminated groundwater threatened the well-being of children at a local school.

Dayspring Village School, home to 100 staff and students, is located about 70 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg. It is the site of diminishing water wells and invasive, non-indigenous plants that further deplete the school's water supply.

In response to these challenges, Lee and her colleagues conducted fieldwork in the area to locate sites for new water wells.

The project, supported by Geoscientists Without Borders, was established to improve water access during the dry season, which can last anywhere from four to six months.

Instead of reverting to systematic drilling, the team used alternative geophysical methods to image the region's groundwater table.

Lee organized the team's transportation and its physical collection of data. She also helped Witwatersrand students process and interpret field data using geophysics software.

She recently returned to Canada to complete her studies and reflected on her experience abroad.

"In our first year, we only had access to equipment from the university, and it took about three days just to do 400 metres of imaging," she says. "Once we received funding, we were able to use more advanced technology to collect geophysical data."

Another goal of the project was to increase inter-university collaboration and expose students to non-academic institutions such as industry and government.

Lee has had experience in several areas of geophysics, ranging from government consultation to the mining industry. Under the supervision of Professor Bill Morris, she successfully completed her master of science degree at McMaster and is currently finishing the last 18 months of her PhD at the Flight Research Laboratory in Ottawa.

"Geophysics has great potential to improve the standard of living in the developing world," says Lee. "I hope to see more students embracing a more humanitarian approach to geosciences."

She also encourages students to go out and discover what they are passionate about in their individual fields of study.

"I think it's important for students to network and engage in as any external learning opportunities as possible," says Lee.

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