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When Jake Ulrich was completing his undergraduate degree at Union College, he never saw his research in chemistry applying to real-world scenarios about human health. However, after the water supply of a town close to his campus was contaminated with chemicals that were potentially linked to kidney cancer in the town, Ulrich’s eyes were opened to the possibility of his research being extremely relevant to global health.

Jake Ulrich

Ulrich, a fourth-year Duke Ph.D. candidate in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department on the Environmental Health Engineering track, uses analytical chemistry techniques to study organic contaminants in water systems. More specifically, he focuses on studying the chemical contaminant profile of drinking water wells in rural Sri Lanka.

“We’re specifically interested in identifying potential contaminants that might be related to a mysterious kidney disease that is prevalent in these parts of the country,” said Ulrich. “It’s a really interesting intersection between analytical chemistry, environmental science, and human health.”

In the more rural farmland areas of Sri Lanka, the mysterious kidney disease, better known as chronic kidney disease (CKD), has been prevalent for decades. CKD has affected farmers—the bulk of them being men—who work within hot, humid climates in the lowlands. This epidemic’s roots remain a mystery to public health officials and scientists, as many, including Ulrich, work to discover the cause of the disease. 

Within his research work, Ulrich said that the most memorable experiences have come from his opportunities to travel and work with others in the industry across the world.

“I’ve done work with an industry partner in California, river systems in NC, drinking and surface waters in Haiti, and of course my dissertation work in Sri Lanka,” he said. “I’ve worked with riverkeepers from the NC River Alliance, academics at the University of Florida, researchers across Duke, individuals down in Haiti, and many researchers and individuals in Sri Lanka.”

Contaminated drinking well water might be the cause for a mysterious kidney disease has been affecting farmers in rural Sri Lanka for decades.
(Photo by Dr. Nishad Jayasundara)

As he was frequently traveling for his dissertation’s research in Sri Lanka, Ulrich wasn’t expecting to find a mentor within the field who would support such distant fieldwork. But then, he connected with Associate Professor Lee Ferguson in 2017.

“Dr. Lee Ferguson has been 100% supportive of me during my Ph.D. studies and has allowed me to pursue research that interests me and helps me towards achieving my professional goals,” said Ulrich. “There aren’t many PIs that would be excited for their graduate student to do their dissertation research requiring fieldwork in a country halfway across the world.”

In addition to Ferguson, Ulrich says that Nishad Jayasundara and Heather Stapleton, faculty members in the Nicholas School of the Environment, have served as key mentors in not only his research but in his path as an educator.

“Dr. Jayasundara is the individual who presented the case of mysterious kidney disease in Sri Lanka as a potential dissertation project and has provided unquantifiable amounts of support and mentorship with my work on this project,” said Ulrich. “Dr. Stapleton allowed me to take over her teaching duties in the ENVIRON 360 class I am teaching for my Bass Instructional Fellowship. She has been extremely helpful, a useful resource, and extremely gracious with her time when it comes to enhancing my development as an educator.”