Otakuye Conroy-Ben is the first Lakota woman to earn a doctorate degree in environmental engineering. She has three degrees including a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Notre Dame, where she graduated in 1998. She serves as an assistant professor at Arizona State University and received the 2019 Technical Excellence Award from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
She was working with tribal communities to examine evidence of substance abuse in their wastewater when that public health concern was eclipsed by another: the coronavirus. It soon became clear that Conroy-Ben could apply her research to the emerging crisis and the federal calls for funding proposals to investigate the virus’ impacts. While there are many researchers who are interested in working with tribal communities, not many will not take the time to develop a relationship with them. Otakuye did take the time, and she is now leading two federal grants, one from the National Science Foundation and one from the National Institutes of Health. One project is aimed at analyzing wastewater infrastructure on reservations, while the other uses wastewater epidemiology to measure coronavirus levels in tribal communities where the pandemic has taken an outsized toll. Otakuye and her team look at those wastewater samples in order to determine how prevalent the virus is within a tribal community. They then pass that information on to tribal health administrators, who can use that information in a beneficial way by implementing public health measures such as mask mandates and gathering limits.
This research will not be limited to just this current pandemic. Otakuye’s methods of analyzing wastewater will be used to monitor a variety of different health metrics such as levels of substance abuse, the flu, and biomarkers for diabetes, a matter of particular concern for tribal communities.