The sight of a young child in Africa drinking from a tainted puddle propelled one professor and his students to seek a remedy.

The moral imperative to do something came, literally, out of the water.

It came from the dye-polluted waters that students watched change colors every day of the week during a six-week research trip to Tanzania. It emerged from the Dominican Republic, where they saw the water supply contaminated by cow excrement. And it surfaced in the bacteria-tinged water in Guatemala, where just a sip of day-old bottled water could lead to hospitalization for all kinds of gastrointestinal illnesses.

Those are the types of ailments people who live in developed nations with clean water supplies never have to worry about. But for the 1.1 billion people worldwide who lack access to safe and adequate water, disease runs rampant. As the student fellows in SJU’s Institute of Catholic Bioethics learned firsthand, simply procuring safe drinking water is a daily struggle.

“Having clean water is a basic human right,” says Peter Clark, S.J. ’75 (B.A.), Institute director and professor of theology and health administration. “If we truly cared about bioethics, we needed to do something about the water.”

Those travels, in Africa and throughout Central America and the Caribbean, which Fr. Clark’s student fellows took as living, breathing coursework to gain a global perspective on health, opened their eyes to healthcare disparities in ways they never expected.

And once home, it inspired them to work to correct it.

Now, after four years of research and experimentation, Fr. Clark and his students have developed a sustainable, cost-effective, slow-sand water filter with the potential to provide clean water and save the lives of millions of people who live in underdeveloped countries.

“I really have chills right now, thinking about it,” says Stephen Szapor ’09 (B.S.), one of the initial group of students involved in the filter’s creation. “Just to know that one little project could make a change in one person’s life … . That’s why I went to St. Joe’s. To make a difference in one person’s life.”

Still, none of it would have been possible without the vision, commitment and steady guidance of Fr. Clark.

A Moral Compass

“I couldn’t ask for a better mentor or teacher,” says Szapor, who now works in administration at the Denver VA Medical Center in Denver, Colo. “Fr. Clark pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you see the injustices in the world. He makes you think differently about life.”

Fr. Clark

Fr. Clark had simply passed down the principles taught to him during his own undergraduate years at Saint Joseph’s. The Jesuits calibrated his moral compass through their abiding commitment to poor and third world countries.

The holder of three master’s degrees and a Ph.D., Fr. Clark takes a seat in his warm, welcoming office, adorned with solid wood bookcases stacked with volumes. Photos of family members and former students grace his desk. At 59, he possesses the energy of a much younger man, a testament to the benefit of running four miles a day.

He’s hard to catch. One day, he’s training residents in bioethics at Mercy Health System. What are the ethical ramifications of doctors doing face transplants? Prescribing medical marijuana? Giving life-sustaining therapy when you’ve determined it will be medically futile?

Another day finds Fr. Clark in the classroom, where he teaches two graduate courses and one undergraduate course in bioethics. Come summer or Christmas break, chances are he’ll be directing immersion programs, traveling to Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua or Africa, figuring out ways to improve access to quality healthcare.

“People ask, ‘Why are you going to Africa when we’ve got problems here?’” Fr. Clark says. “But there are a lot of people already doing good work here. If medicine is truly global, there has to be an international dimension.”

This belief sparked Fr. Clark’s idea to create the Institute of Catholic Bioethics in 2006. He envisioned an educational research center, with Catholic values, where students and faculty, through their travel to other countries, could discover ways to serve the common good.

When it came to learning about medical ethics, “I thought our students had a myopic view,” Fr. Clark says. “Some of our students couldn’t even name a country in Africa. I wanted our research to be more global.”

Capt. Luke Surry, M.D. ’07 (B.S.), was one of the first students to help Fr. Clark conceptualize the mission of the Institute. Surry, along with several other undergraduate fellows, traveled to the Dominican Republic that first year, where they saw how hard it was for poor people to get fresh, clean water.

The water was filthy, with no effective filtering mechanisms for the wells. “There were cow pastures and rice patty fields with contaminated water,” Surry recalls. “The cows would do their business, and it would collect in the water supply. Chicken excrement covered the ground everywhere. Personal bathrooms weren’t separated from the water supply at all.”

The following year, while spending six weeks working at St. John’s Parish medical clinic in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, student fellows saw patients, mostly children, contracting illnesses such as typhoid fever and malaria from contaminated water.

Szapor remembers. “Every morning we’d walk to the clinic,” he says. “One of the places we crossed was this river that went through town. About a mile up the river, there was a textile factory, and depending on what textile they were dying, the river would turn a different color. The locals would have to walk two to five miles to collect clean water.”

Meanwhile, the students watched helplessly as children filled their water bottles with the polluted liquid.

Finding the Filter

Feeling they had an overwhelming moral obligation to address the problem, the students returned home and brainstormed ideas for a water filtration project. Many students were graduating, but Fr. Clark made sure the project would stay the course with the Institute’s incoming group of student fellows.

His only mandate? That the filter be affordable, accessible and sustainable.

Research began in earnest with more travel and observation.

“After seeing the massive need in the Dominican Republic, specifically when we watched people pulling water up from an apparent well in a rusty old coffee can, I realized the gravity of the situation as it pertained to clean water in underdeveloped countries,” says Krysta Contino ’09 (B.S.), who traveled to the Caribbean island as an Institute fellow in 2008. “We had done a lot of research into different types of filters and started running tests to determine the amount of bacteria that could pass through each filter and the potential types of materials that could be used.”

But the most telling research came from personal experience. While in Guatemala, Institute fellow Matthew Fadus ’12 (B.S.) drank day-old water and got sick. “That pretty much was a wake-up call right there,” he says. “We needed a filter that was inexpensive, durable, easy to make — and we wanted it to work. It didn’t have to look cool or extravagant. All it had to be was functional and easy to use.”

The Bucket List

Over the next four years, students experimented with different models, including a ceramic model (unsustainable because it broke too easily) and a slow-sand copper pipe model (abandoned because of the high cost, limited availability and potential for theft of the copper).

Next on the drawing board came a student-constructed model made of PVC pipe and a bucket, but it was too cumbersome and difficult to construct.

Still, the students agreed that the bucket concept was the way to go — it seemed the best means of filtering bacteria and meeting Fr. Clark’s criteria. Experimentation continued. Finally, graduate fellow Mike Tecce ’05 (B.S.) figured out how to use a doublebucket design.

“My dad is from Italy, and we make our own wine,” Tecce explains, “so we have these giant buckets all over the house. I thought, ‘This is the same thing as a pipe. If you cut out the bottom of the bucket and put one inside of the other, it would serve as a reservoir the pipe didn’t have.’”

The students had seen a version of the two-bucket filter during another trip to Guatemala. It was all they needed to catch a second wind.

“We came back with more motivation,” Fadus says. “We were testing like 15, 16 hours a week. If we hadn’t seen the need firsthand, we would have lost sight of how important the project was.”

The filter’s beauty lies in its simplicity: two four-gallon plastic buckets, one spigot, gravel, a matrix of mesh and cheesecloth, and 50 pounds of fine sand. One bucket, its bottom drilled with holes, nests inside the other, which acts as the water collection site. The inside bucket contains the cheesecloth and mesh, two inches of gravel and 24 inches of sand. The spigotw is installed in the collection bucket. The filter’s total cost is about $16 in the United States, and under optimal conditions, it removes bacteria from contaminated water with approximately 99 percent efficiency.

To know that what started as a germ of an idea to help people gain access to a basic human need — clean water — is now approved and ready for distribution almost leaves Surry, currently an advisory board member for the Institute, at a loss for words.

“It’s hard to fathom,” he says. “There are few things in my life that I claim I’m proud of. But being a part of this project gives me an overwhelming sense of pride.”

The Institute has partnered with the Global Alliance for Africa, with micro-financing from John Rangel, chair of the Institute’s advisory board, to construct and sell the filters for 1,300 Kenyan shillings, or $12, to residents living in the disadvantaged communities of Nairobi, Kenya.

The notion to patent the filter never crossed Fr. Clark’s mind. “That would defeat the purpose,” he says. “I want as many people to use it as possible.”

Moving Forward

Many of the students who were involved in the project are pursuing medical careers today. Fadus is a first-year student at Creighton University School of Medicine. Tecce is concluding his second year at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Contino is in her fourth year at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School-Camden. Surry is a second-year resident at the San Antonio Uniformed Health Education Consortium.

Describing his trip to Africa as “transformational,” Surry plans to continue to research projects that help marginalized people. He credits Fr. Clark for that. “Without the guidance I got from him, I never would have gone to the medical school I went to,” the graduate of Georgetown University Medical School says. “He guides students, and we take it and run with it.”

Contino says her experience at SJU has inspired her to work with underserved populations. She has already spent a summer in Europe studying different healthcare systems and is currently working at a public hospital in Argentina. She wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to do it, she says, without Fr. Clark, who “challenged me to think outside of the box, give my all to all that I do and serve others.”

True to form, Fr. Clark is already on to his next project, an idea born of a science project discovery by his niece, Michelle Moffa, that water lilies remove arsenic.

“I wondered if our filter could be combined with the water lilies,” Fr. Clark says. “Can water lilies suck arsenic out of the water?”

Current fellows got to work and constructed a new slow-sand water filter with water lilies that is now being tested.

“We found a Jesuit in Calcutta and Skyped with him,” Fr. Clark continues. “As soon as we get the filter approved we’re going to partner with them to start a pilot program … .”

All for the common good.