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CSB alumna receives innovation award in Iowa

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February 16, 2015

By Elisabeth Leipholtz ’15

Left to right: Janet Phipps Burkhead; Director, Iowa Department of Administrative Services and Sophia Walsh '08

A College of Saint Benedict alumna has been named the 2014 Woman of Innovation in Government Agency/Non-Profit Innovation and Leadership by the Technology Association of Iowa.

Sophia Walsh, an environmental health specialist at the Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health in Mason City, Iowa, graduated in 2008 and majored in environmental studies. Although Walsh was an environmental studies major, she took additional courses in math and science, as well as a course in Geographic Information System (GIS).

Walsh was recognized for her work in studying why arsenic is present in groundwater used by private wells, and how it can be avoided when new wells are drilled. The award focused specifically on her use and application of STEM - science, technology, engineering and math. Walsh credits her education at CSB for much of her success.

"This degree prepared me with skills like critical thinking, problem solving and how to work with a team, which have been essential to the success of our project," Walsh said. "Sciences were used to help figure out the source of the arsenic, where those sources are located and what geochemical conditions allow arsenic to precipitate into the groundwater. Needless to say, my time at CSB prepared me well for working on this project."

Walsh worked with staff from the University of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory and Shawver Well Company through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct the study. The active part of the study consisted of sampling 70 wells over a three-year period, but the process as a while took five years. They found that the wells were pulling water from two different aquifers, one of which contained a high amount of arsenic.

Conducting such a study called for the application of certain sciences. Walsh was educated in GIS and sciences such as geology and chemistry, which helped her decide how to approach the problem. The approach taken combined the use of 2-D and 3-D maps created with GIS, as well as a discipline called geochemistry (a combination of geology and chemistry).

As a result of the study, Walsh and her team found that arsenic is present in about one-third of the 70 private wells tested in Cerro Gordo County, and is a public health hazard because its presence can affect consumers in ways such as cancer and cardio-vascular health. 

In a proposed ordinance, beginning on July 1, 2015, all new wells drilled in Cerro Gordo County will have to be drilled through the Lime Creek aquifer, which will then allow the new wells to only pull water from the Cedar Valley aquifer, which has a lower risk of arsenic contamination

"I just encourage anyone using a private well to get that well tested," Walsh said. "It's inexpensive but so important."

As a testament to her work and dedication, Walsh was nominated for this award by the staff at Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health. Finalists were selected based on professional experience, history of innovation, ability to think creatively and solve problems and demonstration of leadership. She found out she had been named 2014 Woman of Innovation in Government Agency/Non-Profit Innovation and Leadership on Nov. 11 at an award ceremony.

Also nominated in the Government Agency/Nonprofit Innovation and Leadership category were Erin Rollenhagen of Entrepreneurial Technologies and Janell Wright of Boy Scouts of America Winnebago Council.

"It was very exciting," Walsh said. "The caliber of nominees was outstanding and it was surreal to be on stage with some amazing women who have done research on cancer and childhood disease, really groundbreaking things. It was an honor to share stage with them."

Walsh recently applied for another grant through the National Institutes of Health. If awarded the grant, she plans to look at building a model that well drillers and community members could use when drilling new wells in order to see where least amount of arsenic risk would be.

"I hope that the work our team has done will protect the health of people throughout our county, state and nation, and that other women will be inspired to work on challenges that face our community using science, technology, engineering and math," Walsh said.