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This scientist has made a career of confronting failures

As an environmental researcher, Dr. Dawn Fox of Guyana finds ways to turn “trash into treasure” – literally and figuratively

Dr. Dawn Iona Fox, Lecturer at the University of Guyana, Turkeyen, talks about her research before accepting the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World at the AAAS Annual Meeting. She was recognized for her work in environmental science, including a project to improve the quality of drinking water in her country. (Photo by Alison Bert)
Dr. Dawn Iona Fox, Lecturer at the University of Guyana, Turkeyen, talks about her research before accepting the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World at the AAAS Annual Meeting. She was recognized for her work in environmental science, including a project to improve the quality of drinking water in her country. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Dr. Dawn Iona Fox has been passionate about chemistry since high school. Then a national disaster set her on a trajectory that would define her career.

In 1995, the tailings dam at the Omai Gold Mine in Guyana cracked, spewing contaminants into a river people relied on for drinking, fishing, bathing and transportation. The water was contaminated with cyanide-containing sediments from the mine.

“The vision of it – the discolored river, the dead fish, and the energy of the people trying to fix the problem … ” Dawn recalled. “It inspired me to choose water remediation as the central focus of my science journey. I wanted to help.”

One of the responders was her undergraduate research advisor, Dr. David Singh, who shared his experiences with his students. “This was one of my memorable impressions of a scientist at work,” said Dawn, who is now a Lecturer on the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Guyana, Turkeyen.

The experience showed her how people’s lives could be deeply impacted by the water around them – and how scientists can contribute.

“If you live in a riverain community, water is not only for your drinking but also your mode of transportation; it’s where you get your livelihood from, it’s where you get your food from,” she said. “And when that gets impacted, your whole life is impacted. That is when I realized this is not only a problem for my community – the world needs clean water.”

Her desire to “clean dirty water” piqued her interest in creating long-term, sustainable solutions. Through her research, she focuses on converting waste into into materials that can solve environmental and public health issues, using local materials to improve water quality at the household level for vulnerable communities and for emergencies like floods, storms and hurricanes.

Dr. Fox uses microscopy and spectroscopy to create materials for improving water quality. She has developed aqueous phase sorbents (solid materials to remove contaminants from water) using a variety of materials local to Guyana, including waste sawdust, coconut shells, and rice husks. She has also worked on composite building materials, substituting chipped waste plastic for sand in concrete mixtures. She is currently developing a household water treatment filter made entirely from recycled and locally available materials.

Last month, Dr. Fox was recognized for her research in water remediation at the the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where she and four colleagues were awarded the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World.

Dr. Dawn Fox talks about her research at the AAAS Meeting before accepting her OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award. On the screen is Dr. Witri Lahyu Lestari of Indonesia, who was unable to travel to the event. (Photo by Alison Bert)

“Don’t be afraid of failure”

As a scientist, Dawn has also been inspired by failure on the personal level.

“One of the life lessons I’ve learned on this journey is not to be afraid of failure,” she said. “And in fact, it’s a part of the scientific method.

“If you have a hypothesis and you test it and it doesn’t work out, you change things and you go again. And we learn a lot more from failure than from an outright success because we study failure more.”

She recalls an experiment she was doing in her water remediation work. She expected the compound she chose to work in a certain way, and when it didn’t, she tried many variations of the experiment over the course of the year. Still, it didn’t not work out the way she had hoped.

It was tempting to give up, but she pressed forward, seeking the advice of a colleague. She ended up changing her hypothesis and the way she was looking at the experiment, which led her to find a compound that did work.

“What I realized was that the science was trying to tell me the truth,” she said. “I had to be open to failure to realize that and redirect my course to find the truth.”

Her best advice for young scientists

After the award ceremony, Dr. Dawn Iona Fox poses for a photo with Prof. Norma Alcantar of the University of South Florida, who was her doctoral advisor. (Photo by Alison Bert)

For Dawn, mentoring women in science is a natural extension of her work at the university. During AAAS, she spoke of receiving guidance and encouragement from female role models thoughtout her studies, including an enthusiastic high school chemistry teacher named Ms. Grace Henry.

In 2016, Dawn co-founded a local group called Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE) to support and empower girls and women to pursue STEM careers.

In our interview, she does not hesitate when asked for her best advice for scientists in college. “It’s the same advice my mother gave to me, and that is: be the best that you can be,” she said:

When you are the master of your craft, when you are secure in your knowledge, secure in your competence, then you will reap the benefit of being able to contribute. Science is a very difficult and demanding discipline and it could get very frustrating unless you are totally committed, unless you are totally committed to your craft, and knowing your field. And so eventually what’s going to happen if you are really excellent at what you do, you are going to be able to contribute in ways that will bring fulfilment.  So give it your all, when you are awesome at what you do, then your contribution will make the sacrifice worth it.

Dr. Dawn Fox talks about a defining moment in her journey to becoming an environmental scientist:

Watch a video about the winners

For Women’s History Month in March, we are featuring outstanding women in science. This story is part of our series on the winners of the 2018 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.

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