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As theme comes to close, Folt talks water research

At Dartmouth, Chancellor Carol Folt researched mercury levels in fish.

“This water is a global issue. It isn’t an issue that can be imagined, really, in a smaller scale,” she said.

Folt gave the lecture “Water in Our World: Past Is Present, Future Is Fragile, But We Can Make a Difference” on Thursday night.

The lecture was part of the campus theme “Water in Our World,” which ends this school year. Folt spoke about the next steps in water research and preservation.

She studied aquatic ecosystems and toxicity as a biology professor at Dartmouth College before coming to UNC in 2013. Although the pan-campus theme was established in 2012, before Folt became chancellor, she said being able to contribute to the theme was the “icing on the cake.”

“In some ways, I don’t know that they told me about it in the search process,” she said in an interview. “But when I found out they were doing the University theme, I said, ‘Oh, Carol, you really picked the right place.’”

Because humans are affected by water pollution, Folt said it is important to make conscious decisions about what goes into our water supply.

“Basically what goes in stays in. When it does get flushed out, it goes somewhere else,” she said

Folt said she dedicated her professional career to these ecosystems because water is a sensitive resource. What is put into water on one side of the world, she said, can affect people on the other side of the world.

“You have so many different processes going on, but every drop of water carries a memory,” she said.

Folt began studying mercury levels in freshwater in 1995.

She and a team from Superfund, an Environmental Protection Agency program that deals with hazardous waste, studied mercury levels in fish.

Folt also worked on the effect of arsenic on expecting mothers and their babies. Her team found that arsenic can be transferred to children through formula, breast milk and food, including rice.

“I don’t tell people not to eat fish, and I don’t tell people not to eat rice,” she said. “The important thing for me is to understand the safe levels.”

Jamie Bartram, director of the Water Institute at UNC, said Folt fits in with a line of researchers at UNC.

“If we look back earlier in history, we know that Carolina has been engaged with water for two-and-half centuries,” he said.

Folt said she wants students and professors at UNC to share her collaborative research experience.

“UNC is known for being a research institution, but the fact that the chancellor has done that research is a good reflection of us,” said freshman Laura Kathryn Smith, who attended the lecture.

Though she has appreciated the resources of a large university, Folt emphasized the importance of working in the field.

“We did a lot of this work in little lakes where we’d be sampling from canoes.”

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