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Vimy Global Team 2013 Collects Water Samples in Galápagos

September 17, 2013
UNC Global

Three University of North Carolina students spent part of their summer assessing the quality of beach and household tap water in the Galápagos Islands for a research project supported by the Vimy Global Team Award from the Center for Global Initiatives. The research project sought to tackle the implications of the changing demographics of the Galápagos Islands, as a growing local population intersects with increasing tourism in one of the world’s most protected wildlife environments.

Fresh water in the Galápagos Islands comes from springs, but people are advised not to drink water straight from the tap. Instead, drinking water is purified and sold in bottles. The UNC team collected samples for signs of E. coli, antibiotic resistant bacteria and other threats to health and well-being.

The Vimy Global Team Award is given each year to one team of UNC students to work on a self-directed project within communities outside the United States. The award provides up to $15,000 from the Chancellor’s Global Education Fund in recognition of the spirit and vision of UNC alumnus Peter McMillan ’81. The original Vimy was a World War I biplane, which McMillan rebuilt and then flew in honor of the original plane’s international flight path. McMillan’s story is one of imagination, exploration, teamwork, overcoming adversity and discovery. These are critical components of Vimy Global Teams.

Projects that could qualify for a Vimy Global Team Award must meet these criteria:

  • Projects must foster learning about a significant global issue or problem.
  • Team members must represent at least three academic departments or majors.
  • A faculty advisor must be involved in the project.
  • International travel, data collection and experiential learning must be conducted during summer.

Teams must develop and implement a year-long engagement campaign to bring back their important work to further enrich the campus community.

The students in the 2013 team consisted of Katie Overbey ’14, Shannon Steel ’14 and Billy Gerhard ’14. Assistant professor of environmental services and engineering Jill Stewart served as their advisor, helping them to develop the winning research plan and the pitch that they presented in the Vimy Global Team Award competition.

Prior to developing the water quality research plan and forming the current team, Overbey spent a summer semester at the UNC Institute for the Environment at the Galápagos field site. While there, she became intrigued by the changing dynamics of the population and the environment.

“Seven thousand people live on the island and 180,000 tourists pass through,” said Overbey. “There’s an interesting overlap between expanding population and tourism.”

While this experience served as the initial catalyst for the project, Overbey and her crew were faced with the challenge of finding a way to establish a research project at an international level. Faculty mentors can play a crucial role for students at this point.

“Faculty can introduce students to contacts abroad, arrange for lab space and other resources and can help the students navigate permitting or other logistical issues,” said Jill Stewart, the team’s faculty advisor.

Stewart is an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Members of the 2013 Vimy Global Team went house to house to get drinking water samples. They also sampled water at all of the popular beaches. The samples are being analyzed to identify patterns of contamination.

“We have piles of data,” said Overbey. “It does appear that there is some sort of pattern.”

Upon their return to campus this fall, Jill Stewart will continue to guide the team through data analysis and submitting articles for publication. Team members also plan to report their results to the Galápagos National Park and to the Galápagos Science Center.

“It has been thrilling to work with this talented team of students,” said Stewart. “I have watched as each of them made the transition from being good students to independent researchers. They are contributing to the knowledge base about water quality in the Galápagos Islands and, ultimately, about how human activities can affect the environment. Their work is a testament to how knowledge can be advanced through collaborative research.”

To learn more about the Vimy Global Team Award, and the application process and deadline for 2014, please visit:

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