Assistant professor Sharon Walker of the University of California, Riverside, has one professional goal: to ensure clean drinking water. She is a world expert on why bacteria stick to certain surfaces, a crucial issue for water quality.
While her specialty has enormous potential applications in a variety of fields, Walker wanted to contribute to an environmental issue of the highest order and so chose to focus on bacteria in water, she told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in her office at Sde Boker last week.
“At the end of the day, I want to help make sure that people have a clean glass of water,” she summed up.
Walker is in Sde Boker on a Fulbright scholarship at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research of The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Fulbright is one of the world’s most prestigious and widely known academic exchange programs. The United States–Israel Educational Foundation is responsible for the management of Israeli participation in the Fulbright Program.
She is using the one-year fellowship both to bring a higher level of expertise to the Zuckerberg Institute and to forge a collaborative bridge between BGU and UC Riverside for many years to come.
“I spend about 50 percent of my time advising students on their projects. I help them analyze bacteria on a level they haven’t done here before. The other 50% of the time I’m brainstorming with my host [and colleague] Moshe Herzberg and putting together a collaboration beyond this year,” she said.
Scientific jargon aside, Walker explained quite succinctly what it is she does.
“I study why bacteria stick to surfaces. Bacteria stick to all sorts of surfaces, like teeth and contact lenses. The answer is a complex mix of reasons having to do with metabolism, chemistry of the water, how old they are, physical chemistry and biological processes all going on simultaneously,” she explained.
Understanding how bacteria work is crucial for reusing treated sewage water and for eliminating bio-fouling at desalination plants.
“I’m actually in the desalination department at Zuckerberg. Whenever you have membranes, one of the biggest problems is bio-fouling. Bacteria builds up on the filters and clogs them. I can help with that.
“Understanding why bacteria stick to surfaces also means you can make surfaces they don’t stick to. So instead of sticking to the filters, they wash right through and are trapped by the filter instead,” she continued.
Walker is mostly advising BGU students on their projects rather than focusing on her own right now. She also has six doctoral students back in California whom she continues to advise via Skype. She recently applied for a grant from the US Department of Agriculture to fund student exchanges between the two universities, because she has noted many similarities between Israel’s climate and Southern California’s.
“Beersheba gets about 20 cm. of rain a year and so does Riverside. Israel and Riverside are both citrus growing areas and there’s growing water scarcity in the Southwest US just as there is in Israel,” she said.
Moreover, California is considering water reuse and Israel is the world leader in water reuse, she said.
“Zuckerberg has huge expertise in desalination and water treatment,” which drew her there for her fellowship.
And while Israel is near the top of any ranking of water
efficiency, “the US was ranked 147 in the world by the World Water
Council,” so there’s much that can be learned via collaborative
efforts, Walker believes.
Halfway through her year at Sde Boker,
Walker is enthusiastic about the quality of her students, the “cutting
edge” facilities, and what can come from ongoing collaboration.