Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Biosystems Engineering

Committee Chair/Advisor

Dr. Diana C. Vanegas-Gamboa

Committee Member

Dr. Elizabeth Carraway

Committee Member

Dr. Cindy M. Lee

Committee Member

Dr. Christopher S. McMahan


Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) has become a primary environmental and public health concern in the region of Colombia known as Alto Cauca. The predominantly Afro-descendent communities of Yolombó and La Toma in Alto Cauca have experienced pollution linked to the use of mercury in the ASGM process. For the past decade, mercury has emerged as a contaminant of increasing concern in the communities due to its toxicity and ability to bioaccumulate and biomagnify. Likewise, mining in the region raises concerns over the leaching of metals into local waters. Given the complexity of risk and pollution in the communities, a multifaceted approach is needed to understand and investigate solutions.

The overarching goal of my research project was to understand the current state of environmental contamination and associated health risks of ASGM in Alto Cauca, Colombia, and to investigate potential solutions to ASGM pollution through participatory knowledge building and education. Using a community-centered approach, I investigated water contamination within the communities, characterized exposure to contaminants via consumption of water and fish, and assessed the hazard and risk levels associated with exposure to pollution in the communities. I also developed interactive educational materials to train undergraduate students interested in working effectively with marginalized communities vulnerable to water pollution issues.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of my dissertations describe a participatory assessment conducted to characterize exposure, water pollution, and health risks in Yolombó and La Toma. Dietary diaries and an interview with school officials were utilized to quantify the consumption of fish and water. Two water sampling campaigns were carried out with the guidance of community leaders to assess groundwater sites utilized by the community members. Results indicated that while the groundwater generally met regulatory standards, one site studied required attention due to heightened iron, manganese, and aluminum levels. Likewise, pollution indices pointed to elevated pollution levels at three sites. The hazard index (HI) associated with drinking water sampled did not indicate probable risk to most of the participants. However, there was a probable hazard to infants consuming water from one well in the communities—moreover, the presence of lead warranted further investigation.

Chapter 5 describes the development of interactive educational materials to train undergraduate students to work effectively with communities vulnerable to water pollution. A curriculum on empathy and cultural competence was co-developed with undergraduates enrolled in the Clemson Engineers for Developing Communities (CEDC) program during the Spring of 2023. Student interest and self-efficacy were assessed to inform recommendations to implement the curriculums. The findings revealed that students involved in the co-development process derived interest in empathy and cultural competence from college majors, career goals, family influence, improving personal interactions, and "growing up in a bubble." The student's interest development was supported by personal skills such as autonomy, collaboration with peers, continuous learning, and discovering new applications of learned concepts. Likewise, the students' self-efficacy development was supported by embracing challenges, collaboration in a supportive environment, repeated and diverse practice, peer success and teaching others.

Author ORCID Identifier



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