The 9th international Water & Health seminar for PhD students will take place in Cannes, France from 26 to 28 June 2017. Organised by SUEZ and the universities of Lorraine (France) and Bonn (Germany), this event is an opportunity for 20 PhD students from all over the world to present their work to academics and representatives of industry. It is also a forum for exchanges and discussions about subjects related to water and health. A joint interview with two members of the seminar’s scientific committee: Philippe Hartemann, chairman of the jury and Professor of Public Health at the University of Lorraine, and Jean-François Loret, who manages the Health and Environment department at SUEZ.
What does this seminar consist of?
Jean-François Loret: The seminar was created 9 years ago by French and German academics as the formal expression of an initiative that had been launched a few years previously. SUEZ has conducted the scientific committee that selects the candidates. In concrete terms, PhD students working on new issues related to the sanitary quality of water (microbiology, chemistry, new water treatment technologies) present us with an overview of their work, and around 20 of them are selected by the scientific committee to take part in the seminar. At the seminar, the research work is presented to the scientific committee, which then rewards the work of one of the students in particular. We also invite all the students to publish their work in a special edition of the scientific review, “International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health“.
What are the main issues facing research into water and health?
Philippe Hartemann: The issues of the sanitary quality of water have been reflected by the subjects chosen by the students since the inception of this seminar. There are socio-demographic questions, such as access to drinking water, in particular with the Water Safety Plans , scientific issues related to microbiology (resistance to antibiotics, studies of viruses) and to chemistry and toxicology (medicinal residues, endocrine disruptors, other micropollutants, etc.) and technical issues related to water treatment. For example, today we are working on advanced techniques, such as the use of membranes in drinking water and the tertiary treatment of residual water.
Have these issues changed since the seminar was first held?
P.H.: There has been a significant change, for two reasons. First, we have made significant technical progress in the past 10 years, so now we are studying new themes. For example, in the field of pollutants, we are now studying very low concentrations, to the order of a nanogram per litre. This was not possible in the past. So we have progressed from “macro” analysis to “nano” analysis, thanks to the performance of new tools. Second, we have witnessed a complete change in the profile of the thesis students, with the emergence of young researchers from developing countries. They work on subjects such as access to drinking water and include local climatic and technical considerations into their work.
What form does SUEZ’s involvement in this project take?
J.F.L.: Water is a fragile resource, and at SUEZ we must permanently stay one step ahead of the emergence of new chemical or biological pollutants. This seminar is an important part of our scientific watch. But it is also a means of building long-lasting relationships with internationally renowned scientists in the field of water. These experts advise and guide us on international health problems related to water. Moreover, they are also in contact with the regulatory instances (health agencies, ministries, the WHO, and we can thus inform them of our operational constraints in the field.
How does the theme “Water & Health” fit in with the new issues facing this resource?
J.F.L.: We are thinking more and more about short circuits that use new technologies, such as the reuse of wastewater or desalination. These new uses of water raise new questions, such as the acceptability of risks. Or, what are the right health safety indicators and how can they be measured quickly? The seminar addresses all these questions.
What are your selection criteria for the subjects of the theses addressed during the seminar?
P.H.: Of the fifty-odd subjects we receive, we select a majority of students in the third year of their thesis, who are working on a subject of a high scientific level. We also try to be as representative as possible with regard to their geographical origin, in terms of both the students themselves and the subjects they are studying.
J.F.L.: The subjects are selected according to their excellence, their originality and their capacity to address current or future issues. The potential technical application of the subjects in the short term, within 2 or 3 years, is another important criterion.
The seminar is an opportunity for students to meet researchers from universities and industry. How do these two approaches complement one another?
J.F.L.: Today, research feeds on input from the field and vice versa, since industry also approaches university laboratories to find the answers to its questions. At the end of the seminar, the steering committee of SUEZ’s Health and Environment research programme interprets this information and, where appropriate, incorporates it in water treatment operations or in its themes of research.
P.H.: The two approaches you mention are converging, because there is no public funding for university research in this field. Today, this type of research in universities must be applied to varying degrees, and is often conducted in partnership with professional circles.
Lastly, what makes the winner stand out?
P.H.: The award-winner is selected by the scientific committee and the students themselves. There is almost always a consensus on the winner! The quality of the presentation, the relevance of the answers to questions and the originality of the subject are the points that characterise the future winner.
J.F.L.: Finally, I would say that communication is important in scientific projects and that we are all appreciative of the student’s powers of persuasion.