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University of Missouri

Next-generation Water Research

An undergraduate researcher is helping to make water safer.

Emily O'Brien

Emily O’Brien. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Coming as she does from parents who are scientists, Emily O’Brien, a senior biological engineering major from St. Louis, might be expected to be a strong student. But calling her a phenom is more like it, says mentor Heather K. Hunt, assistant professor of biological engineering. Hunt provides not only guidance but also the funding she won from a Mizzou Alumni Association Faculty Incentive Grant in support of the undergraduate’s quest to make drinking water safer. In Hunt’s Bond Life Sciences Center laboratory, O’Brien leads a team that is developing a quick and reliable method for detecting Campylobacter jejuni, which causes waterborne illness. Current tests for Campylobacter require growing cultures for five days to determine whether the bacterium is present. In the meantime, water is flowing and people could be getting sick. O’Brien’s team works with other labs to develop an optical method that senses the bacterium in a few minutes. She also trains newcomers to the lab and presents her work at science conferences. If all goes as planned, she will attend graduate school and add another doctoral degree to the O’Brien family tree.