Our Story

Behavioral Observations: Building Creative Tools for Gathering Data in June, July, and August 2018

Think about the last time you went to the beach.What was the weather like? Did you swim? How long were you in the water? How many times did your head go under water?

Chances are, you remember if you played in the waves or if you surfed, but you might not remember exactly how many minutes you were in the water, or how many times you went underwater. But these details are important for the MERA Investigation because they give us critical information about what people’s experiences swimming at the beach are actually like. In order to build an accurate model for understanding risk, we first need accurate data on what peoples’ exposures entail.

That’s why I spent part of my summer helping our team of anthropologists to develop and pilot our behavioral observation tool, which we use to capture these critical details about peoples’ experiences at the beach. These structured observation periods help us to understand what people do at different parts of the beach at different times. For example, it’s possible the experiences of men and women, locals and tourists, or waders and surfers might differ in important ways. Maybe fewer people swim immediately after storms, or on Tuesday mornings, than on sunny Saturday afternoons. The more detail we are able to capture, the more accurate our risk assessment model can be.

These observations can be done with just paper, a pencil, and a watch, but we use technology to make the data easier to collect and analyze. An Open Data Kit survey helps us to collate the length of the swim event, GPS points, and other data about a person’s swimming experience. This improves the accuracy of the data and the speed with which the data can be analyzed. We also used Livescribe pens to help us capture audio recordings and transcribe our notes in real time. Sometimes, a set of binoculars help us keep our eyes on a swimmer, especially if that person is surfing or boogie boarding far from the shore. In piloting the tool, we wanted to discover what technology and strategies worked well for our team, and what approaches we needed to rethink and modify before we moved into the large-scale observational study period.

Flexibility and creativity are essential components of an effective pilot, because unexpected events, things going wrong, and even things simply not going as efficiently as possibly provide important opportunities for learning and improving. For example, the pens don’t always transcribe our messy handwriting perfectly, and sometimes juggling several pieces of technology can get complicated. But at the end of the day, having a pilot period offered us as researchers a chance to improve the quality of data we collect and maximize the efficacy of our study.

Health and beach recreation: Preparing to understand them better in June and July 2018

It is always important to pilot a survey prior to executing it full-scale. We executed the pilot epidemiology study in June 2018 as a team, which was comprised of MERA scientists, collaborators from the Costa Rican National Water Lab, Costa Rican University students, and USF students. Many thanks to the willing beach goers who participated in the survey!

In preparation for the full-scale epidemiology study at the beach, a total of 23 Costa Rican University students and several collaborators at the Costa Rican National Water Laboratory were trained to execute the epidemiology beach survey in July 2018.


Sun, surf, and sampling: A 5-minute glimpse into water quality sampling at a high wave action beach in Costa Rica March 2018

We just got back from our second expedition to Costa Rica, to collect microbial water quality samples and data in the dry season. Thanks to photographer and videographer Carlos Fernández Arce at Tormenta Cerebral Comunicación, we are excited to share one of our 6-hr sampling days with you in this awesome 5-minute video.


Rain, surf, and sampling: USF graduate students reflect on their first water quality sampling trip in Costa Rica October 2017

The USF team, all smiles at the airport.

Our first sampling trip to Costa Rica represented a homecoming to us – Adriana and Javier- and Dr. Harwood’s first trip ever into the country.  Our goals during this trip were to (1) get to know our Costa Rican collaborators, (2) get to know the study site and possible fecal pollution sources affecting it and, (3) determine the beach water quality during the rainy season. This first sampling trip is the first of several trips, where we will collect some of the data needed to determine water-related health risks. Ultimately, these data will be combined with ethnographic data and observations on human behavior and perceptions so that we can recommend improved water quality management options.

Costa Rican National Laboratory collaborators and members of the USF team. Not pictured, scrumptious snacks and delicious coffee

Everyone was excited and understandably nervous to get started on the right foot. Since this project is a joint effort between different United States and Costa Rican institutions, we kicked off our first day at the AyA National Water Laboratory in Tres Ríos– a chance for all of us to finally meet face-to-face and tour the laboratory.

Our trip consisted of two weeks at the beach, collecting coastal water samples under a variety of conditions. In comparison to Tampa, Florida, USA, the weather is a little different in Costa Rica, because it is located in a tropical zone. In Costa Rica, there are no discrete seasons as one would find in parts of the United States. For example, during what some in the United States would consider the fall, October is one of the last months of the rainy season (or winter) in Costa Rica.  It rains quite a bit in Costa Rica (an average of ten inches for October as compared to just two in Tampa), so determining how such a large amount of rainfall affects coastal water quality is important.

The river mouth flowing into the beach. It looks calm, but strong currents and big waves can make collecting water samples a challenge. Nothing some good old-fashioned teamwork couldn’t overcome though.

During the first few days on site, our Costa Rican National Water Laboratory collaborators showed us the ins and outs of the watershed and possible sources of pollution. We explored the city, beach, and even the head waters of the main river flowing through town, which took us on an amazing walk through rainforest. In turn, our team had the opportunity to share our water sampling protocol with the national laboratory team.

We are using what is called ultra-hollow fiber filtration, which is basically a quick way to capture all the microbes found in large amounts of water. Our setup is pictured below: tubing to transport the water, a peristaltic pump to push water through the filter, and a generator to power the pump.

Our water sampling set-up. The big red rectangle is our generator, the white device directly next to it is the master control for the pump, which sits at the end of the table. The filter (blue cap) is tied to the table leg in an upright position for easier flow.

Thankfully, it rained mostly at night, so that we could collect all 36 samples without risking our not-so waterproof equipment.

We are now busy at work in the lab, using different laboratory techniques to find out what type of wastewater-associated microbes and indicators, if any, were actually in the water. We will return to Costa Rica in March, where we will analyze the water quality again, except this time it will be during the dry season.