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Before she became UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor – listening, learning, making tough decisions – Carol L. Folt already was an internationally recognized environmental scientist – researching, learning, making key discoveries.

April 23, she returned to her roots, sharing her knowledge of toxic metals and water during an hourlong lecture at FedEx Global Education Center. The talk focused on her research examining the harmful effects of mercury and arsenic on humans and ecosystems.

Her expertise and hands-on research attracted a crowd of more than 200 students, faculty members, staff and community members who filled the Nelson Mandela Auditorium to listen to the chancellor speak about her work.

“We’re not at a place where we can be complacent about the quality of our water,” Folt said. “It’s something that we do need to deal with, and we need to deal with it straight on.”

The Global Research Institute, UNC Global, the Water Institute at UNC, the Water in Our World steering committee and the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering sponsored the lecture.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt's lecture was titled “Water in Our World: Past Is Present, Future Is Fragile, But We Can Make a Difference”
Chancellor Carol L. Folt’s lecture was titled “Water in Our World: Past Is Present, Future Is Fragile, But We Can Make a Difference”

It served as the finale of the three-year, campus-wide “Water in Our World” theme, which featured more than 150 presentations including lectures, film screenings and theater performances pertaining to water. Folt previously said that arriving as chancellor in the midst of water theme made her feel even more certain that Carolina was the place for her because it is a subject so close to her heart professionally and personally.

“I continue to be inspired by the way Carolina’s students, faculty and staff are taking on one of our biggest global challenges in a truly collaborative way,” Folt said in previewing the lecture.

Carolina’s long history of water research and activity was contextualized in opening remarks by Jamie Bartram, director of The Water Institute at UNC in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Because Folt’s research directly impacts global water problems and influences environmental policies, it seemed fitting that her lecture wrapped up the three-year theme period, said Peter Coclanis, director of the Global Research Institute and an Albert Ray Newsome Distinguished Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Although her research interests range widely, in aquatic biology she has become known as one the world’s leading experts on serious problems posed by arsenic and mercury in the water,” Coclanis said.

Folt earned a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and a master’s degree in biology at the University of Carolina, Santa Barbara before attending the University of California, Davis for a doctorate in ecology. She also completed postdoctoral work at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station of Michigan State University prior to serving as a professor of biological sciences, faculty member and administrator at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire for 30 years.

During the lecture, titled “Water in Our World: Past Is Present, Future Is Fragile, But We Can Make a Difference,” Folt recalled her years of fieldwork at a Superfund site, which investigated the effects of mercury and arsenic in water. The research ultimately influenced environmental policies and regulatory standards.

“[Mercury and arsenic] gets right into the water that people drink, they start getting into the food that we eat,” she said.

Folt also discussed the importance of facing water issues head-on now in order to help future generations. With freshwater lakes only renewing their water every 100 years and groundwater requiring 300 years to be renewed, actions taken today effect future populations.

“Our water carries memories of things that happened on the planet prior to the day we’re here,” she said. “The decisions of the people before us have created the water we have today. The decisions we make today will create the water for future generations.”

Research and teaching conducted at universities — particularly UNC-Chapel Hill — are a significant way to not only identify water problems, but also find the solutions to issues, she said.

“We’re taking on all these problems in Chapel Hill and we have people ready to work and to make a real difference,” she said. “I think it is one of the most exciting times to be a part of a great university.”

Story by Brandon Bieltz, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published April 24, 2015