A GloCal Fellow’s Passion: Freshwater for Fisheries and Human Health

September 30, 2019

In eastern Africa, bordered by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, Lake Victoria is one of the largest tropical freshwater lakes in the world. Approximately 30 million people live around its shores, and the lake remains an essential source of food, water, industry and recreation in the region. It is also home to one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries. However, over the past couple of decades, water quality has suffered due to a floating invasive plant spread across Lake Victoria’s surface and toxic algal blooms, particularly of concern for reliant communities at the near shore.

“I wanted to get a grasp of the human and ecological implications of the changes in the freshwater lake” she said.

A part of the 2015-2016 cohort of the GloCal Health Fellowship, Amber Roegner, DVM, PhD, conducted a research project that sought local solutions to health risks faced in HIV-endemic villages from cyanobacterial bloom-contaminated waters at Lake Victoria. A bloom of cyanobacterial blooms can cause clear water to be cloudy or look “painted green” or have “scum” over its surface.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, can form in warm, slow-moving waters that are rich in nutrients from fertilizer runoff or septic tank overflows. This kind of algal bloom has been linked to human and animal illnesses around the world.

Photo courtesy of Centre for Aquatic Pollution Identification and Management

Roegner has had an active interest in working with communities living near freshwater lakes for many years. She explained, “I was particularly interested in fisher populations and how they are impacted by these cyanobacterial blooms because of how intimately tied they are to the ecosystem. The blooms not only affect the water quality for humans, but they are also a signal of change in the food-web dynamics.”

Prior to her GloCal Health Fellowship experience at Lake Victoria in Kenya, Roegner completed the joint DVM-PhD Veterinary Scientist Training Program (VSTP) at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California Davis. During her DVM-PhD training, she conducted an interdisciplinary project at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala focused on understanding and reducing human health risks associated with declining water quality and cyanobacterial blooms. This project included working with Guatemalan students and local communities to assess longevity and efficacy of household filters in removing pathogens and toxins of potential concern.

This field experience in Guatemala led Roegner to gain a deeper sense of the ecological and social impact of the communities living around Lake Atitlán. She described the cross-cultural collaboration as a, “very rich experience; both the intellectual and cultural exchange and the friendships developed made me really passionate about the idea of addressing these complex problems that affect us globally.”

With a PhD in Pharmacology & Toxicology, Roegner began a 1-year postdoctoral NCRR veterinary training on aquatic models of human disease through Oregon State University. During this time, her focus was on evaluating chronic and developmental risk from metabolites or bioactive compounds produced in freshwater cyanobacterial blooms.

Roegner’s passion for examining freshwater algal blooms is rooted in making the field of toxicology more accessible to those most impacted. “Microscopic freshwater cyanobacteria can lead to consequences for communities who rely on those waters and can directly impact their livelihood,” said Roegner. “Whether they are fisherman or just rely on the watershed for other activities, their overall health can be affected by cyanobacterial blooms in the lakes.”

Photo courtesy of Amber Roegner

During her GloCal Health Fellowship in Kisumu, Kenya Roegner continued working with fishing communities. Her research project included partners at the Kisumu Research Station of the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) to evaluate temporal and spatial chronic health risks from bloom impacted surface waters or point of source waters. She conducted community focus groups and surveys in collaboration with KMFRI and Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) within fishing communities to identify baseline health risks and unique challenges for communities impacted heavily by HIV.

Roegner is currently an affiliate researcher at the University of Oregon Center for Global Health, where she continues to focus on global environmental and one health issues. Additionally, she works as a veterinarian at the Community Veterinary Center and City of Eugene Spay and Neuter Clinic, providing primary care to companion animals of low-income residents in the community. When reflecting on how the GloCal Health Fellowship impacted her career, Roegner said, “For my time in Kisumu, I developed lifelong friendships and gained colleagues with whom I am sure I will collaborate with in the near future and for the entirety of my professional career.”