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Her “global issue” is clean water for all

Her “global issue” is clean water for all

This summer, Dr. Julielynn Wong, Meds’05, went back to school. She was one of 80 people who took part in Singularity University’s graduate studies program in California. Singularity University brings together professionals from different disciplines to find innovative ways to address serious global issues.
Julielynn WongJulielynn Wong, Meds'05

"I wanted to fuse clinical medicine, exponential technologies, public health strategies, traditional and new media, and entrepreneurship to create and implement innovative solutions that address global health issues,” says Julielynn.

She brought an impressive set of skills to the program. In just five years since her Queen’s medical degree, she has used a Frank Knox Fellowship to study at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she earned her Master of Public Health degree. She went on to do her residency in plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. She was the first student recipient of the Canadian Medical Association's Award for Young Leaders for her contributions to preventive medicine. She has also conducted research at NASA and the International Space University and has lectured to the United Nations on the utilization of space technologies for disease surveillance.

Her classmates at Singularity U. this summer had equally impressive credentials. “There were lawyers, entrepreneurs, and political advisors,” she says. “One of my classmates was a CIA agent! Another had started college when he was nine years old.” The one thing they all had in common? “We all want to have a positive impact on a billion people.”

Julielynn chose to work with a team on issues of clean water. “2.6 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation,” she says. “One billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water. It’s only going to get worse. By 2020, that number may be 5.5 billion. We are depleting the earth’s fresh water supply.”

Three groups explored the problem from different angles. The first tackled the desalination of salt water, since “97 percent of the world’s water is salt water,” says Julielynn. “John F. Kennedy once said that creating a means for cheap desalination would change the world. [Forty years later] we’ve got to the moon, but we haven’t yet conquered salt water..” The team combined three technologies -- nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and solar energy -- to come up with a potential process for affordable and environmentally sustainable desalination.

The second group examined the potential of synthetic biology to detect and resolve major water contaminants. “There is stuff in water that we don’t know about, like chemicals, pharmaceuticals. Environmental medicine is very challenging.” This group updated the idea of “a canary in a coal mine” in a bio-sensor that could test water for various pollutants in a way that would be ‘human-focused’ rather than contaminant-focused. The sensor could signal, for instance, if a contaminant was interacting with the human liver, even if one couldn’t yet identify the specific pollutant. The third group examined the possibility of an intelligent web platform with which to share data and water technologies on a global scale.

Creating new solutions to old problems is one thing: making them come to life is another. Julielynn’s group presented its clean water strategies to funders at a venture capital pitch session set up by Singularity University. “A number of people are very excited about the ideas we developed,” she says. She has now taken a sabbatical year so that she can assist with taking these projects further, and making clean, affordable water available globally.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-4 cover]