When Mercer University junior Sara Binet was in grade school, she filmed a video report offering a solution to the global water crisis.
“My answer was literally to fly over bottles of water,” she recalled.
Now, Binet, an environmental engineering major, knows the problem is much more complex and requires a more permanent answer.
She began to work on such a solution during a Mercer On Mission trip to the Dominican Republic, where rural communities rely on groundwater that may be polluted with animal waste or pesticides.
That 2019 trip helped Binet discover her passion for groundwater innovation and led her down a path that resulted in her receiving a Barry Goldwater Scholarship.
Since the Mercer On Mission trip, Binet has spent much of her college career devoted to finding sustainable, low-cost methods of supplying safe drinking water.
“I was very interested in the (Mercer On Mission) project from a scientific standpoint,” she said. “That was the first time I really learned about groundwater, and I just couldn’t believe how interesting it was and how complex it was.
“Also, getting to work firsthand with the community that we lived in and getting to make connections with people, that was just a really moving experience for me.”
Binet has been examining the quantitative research collected in the Dominican Republic and looking for connections between different pollutants and the groundwater.
“Part of figuring out where the contamination is coming from is being able to connect what the land is used for and what animals and plants are nearby,” she said.
Now, she’s working on making that qualitative information easier to process and present objectively.
Binet conducts her research in the lab of Dr. Michael MacCarthy, associate professor and director of the Engineering for Development program. She also works as a research assistant in the Cecil Day Family Center for International Groundwater Innovation.
Her work in the Cecil Day Family Center is related to research and teaching. Her preceptor-level work developing and teaching a class lab activity related to groundwater flow, gradient and direction contributed to her being awarded the National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award.
“That was awarded to eight recipients in January nationally, and she was the only undergraduate recipient,” Dr. MacCarthy said.
Binet is a hard worker who is unafraid to ask questions and take classes ahead of schedule to advance her research.
“She’s decided to go for everything, really, in terms of making the most of opportunities at Mercer related to service, related to research and related to teaching,” he said.
The Goldwater Scholarship was well-deserved, he said.
“With her work ethic, her intelligence and her interests, she’s got a good chance to be a leader in environmental education research and teaching in the future,” he said.
Although Binet discovered her passion for groundwater innovation at Mercer, the seeds were planted early on at her home in Birmingham, Alabama, where both her parents are educators. Her father teaches French at a local high school, and her mother is a geography professor at Samford University.
“My mom’s work was really inspiring because she always talks about this concept of the geographical lottery,” Binet said. “I think about that so much with the Dominican Republic research with the fact that these people were just born in this town, and because of that they don’t have access to clean water.”
And, although she didn’t understand it at the time, it was a friend’s mother — who started a nonprofit to help get clean water to Malawi, Africa — who explained to a young Binet that flying bottles of water overseas was not a sustainable solution.
This summer, Binet will work remotely at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi with Dr. Romain Chesnaux on the Groundwater Resources Knowledge Acquisition Program, a research position obtained through the Fulbright Canada MITACS Globalink program.
Binet, who is minoring in engineering for development, French and chemistry, said she’s excited about not only the groundwater research but also the chance to apply her French skills at the French-speaking university.
“Ever since I was a freshman at Mercer, my dream job has been one that combines water resources engineering and French, so I cannot wait to see what I’ll learn from this experience,” she said.
After earning her undergraduate degree, Binet plans to obtain a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and develop sustainable technologies to improve access to safe drinking water in developing countries while teaching at a research-intensive university.
“Water is a right, not a privilege,” she said. “I think that everyone in the world should have access to clean drinking water, and if I can do anything to be a part of the solution, I’d really like to.”