‘Mission-driven’: Colleen Naughton integrates anthropology and engineering to advance ag tech and public health

Pixel illustration of a wastewater treatment worker in protective gear holding a sampling pole in a sewer. COVID-19 particles are floating past.
Illustration by Dan Chapman

The CITRIS principal investigator and development engineer blends traditional research techniques with improvements in technology and analytical methods to design healthier and more sustainable food, energy and water systems.

“I heard how CITRIS has strong ties with UC Merced and other UC campuses, and how it uses technology for the interest of society,” said Colleen Naughton, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced, and a principal investigator (PI) at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS). “I was drawn to the institute’s commitment to working on tech policy and supporting diversity in STEM.

“It’s been great to connect with CITRIS and all of its resources.”

Colleen Naughton.

Naughton leads the Food-Energy-Water Systems for and with the Underserved, or FEWS-US, lab at UC Merced, where she and a team of student researchers assess the life cycle sustainability of crops and agricultural technology in developing communities by making a full accounting of the products’ environmental impact, from the extraction of raw materials to final disposal — from “cradle to grave” or “farm to plate,” per the lingo of the field. The FEWS-US researchers then co-design more sustainable food, energy and water systems with the help of local experts.

Naughton developed an interest in water sanitation and food inequity as a member of her Michigan high school’s Model United Nations, where she was first intrigued by international relations. Ultimately, after a compelling conversation with a school counselor, she set aside her political ambitions and chose to study engineering instead.

“I saw that engineers solve problems, and that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. 

Naughton’s desire to engineer a better world motivated her to explore opportunities to make an international impact even as a student. While working on her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Purdue University, Naughton volunteered for seven weeks as a community development agent in Ghana. During graduate studies at the University of South Florida (USF), she simultaneously pursued her master’s degree and served in the Peace Corps in Mali as one of the first students in USF’s civil engineering international master’s program, which included coursework in public health and applied anthropology. 

Two people wearing bright-colored fabrics stand next to an open meeting hall. In front of them is a handwashing station constructed from a hanging bucket with a stick serving as a counterweight.
Colleen Naughton and Jean-Claude Konaré, her Peace Corps work partner, at a handwashing station in Mali. Photo courtesy of Colleen Naughton

Naughton received her doctoral degree from USF in 2016, after completing a dissertation on the food, energy and cultural impacts of shea butter, a vital but resource-intensive crop in sub-Saharan Africa. She then served as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy fellow, working as an environmental and social systems adviser on development projects in Morocco, Tunisia and Togo for the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. international development agency.

Naughton joined the UC Merced faculty in 2019, where her passion for engineering sustainable systems has proven to be an excellent match for the campus, which is one of only 11 higher education institutions in the United States to receive a platinum rating for its sustainability programs and actions.

“Not only is she well prepared in environmental engineering, blending traditional aspects of water quality research with new advances in sustainability life cycle assessments, but she is also at the front of the newly emerging discipline of development engineering,” said Joshua Viers, director of CITRIS at UC Merced and associate dean for research at the UC Merced School of Engineering.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020, Naughton saw an opportunity to put her expertise in water quality engineering — specifically her experience in pathogen detection in wastewater — to good use. She teamed up with Maureen Kinyua, then a UC Davis environmental engineering professor, on a CITRIS COVID-19 Seed Award project to determine the risk of COVID-19 exposure to wastewater treatment workers and communities close to sewage treatment plants. 

Animation by Dan Chapman

Naughton conducted geospatial mapping to determine the proximity of different wastewater treatment plants to local communities, while Kinyua conducted a quantitative microbial risk assessment of the water treatment workers. Their research demonstrated that the workers and the communities were at minimal risk of COVID-19 infection with current safety protocols, and helped to illustrate the scope of COVID-19 spread based on the presence of viral fragments in raw wastewater.

Having generated and mapped out a wealth of information in the course of their research, Naughton, Kinyua and their team decided to create a centralized dashboard of similar COVID-19 data from wastewater epidemiologists across the globe — aptly named COVIDPoops19 — as well as a Twitter account with the same name to report on the latest findings. As of May 2023, COVIDPoops19 plots public wastewater data from 288 universities, 72 countries and more than 4,200 sites. 

Six people wearing casual clothes and protective face coverings in front of an orange wall.
Colleen Naughton, third from right, and her UC Merced lab group members in 2020. Photo by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

The dashboard, which continues to provide researchers with invaluable information about COVID-19 worldwide as part of the Wastewater SARS Public Health Environmental Response (W-SPHERE), was named one of the University of California’s top research stories of 2021. For her efforts on the project, Naughton received the 2021 Grand Prize in University Research from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES). She was also selected for a wastewater-based epidemiology Center of Excellence funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“It is clear that Naughton’s mission-driven approach to research spills over into our CITRIS Tech for Social Good approach to problem-solving,” said Viers, “as her COVID-19 wastewater detection dashboard has not just achieved awards, but has become indispensable to public health specialists managing the pandemic.” 

Her wastewater-based epidemiology work continues through Healthy Central Valley Together (HCVT), a partnership between UC Davis, UC Merced, public health departments and communities to monitor and prevent the spread of COVID-19. HCVT builds on the success of Healthy Davis Together and its offshoot Healthy Yolo Together, programs that prevented thousands of COVID cases and lowered hospitalization rates in Yolo County during the height of the pandemic in 2020–21.

Collage of two photos. In the first, a group of 12 people, most wearing hats to protect them from the sun, kneel next to a drone next to an agricultural field. The person closest to the drone is typing on a cellphone. In the second, 16 people wearing UC Merced t-shirts pose together on a staircase.
The 2022 FACTS Bridge Program cohort in the field and on the UC Merced campus. Field photo by Colleen Naughton; group photo by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

Naughton also demonstrates her commitment to cultivating a healthier, more sustainable world by helping to train the next generation of agricultural technology, or ag-tech, researchers. She leads the San Joaquin Valley Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics Tools and Sciences (FACTS) Bridge Program, which matches 10 first-year, second-year and community college transfer students at UC Merced with faculty members. The paid six-week internship program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and gives the students hands-on research experience in the most productive agricultural region in the world.

As a member of Labor and Automation in California Agriculture (LACA), a project funded by UC Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI), Naughton works alongside fellow CITRIS PIs Stefano Carpin, Tom Harmon, Erin Hestir, Josué Medellín-Azuara and Joshua Viers to increase food supply chain resiliency using technology and automation. Her team explores methods for monitoring and protecting soil, water and air in agricultural ecosystems, with four UC Merced students selected each year to collaborate on research.

Animation by Dan Chapman

One of Naughton’s LACA student researchers performed a life cycle assessment of fresh versus processed tomatoes and discovered that, although canned tomatoes require more electricity and technology in their production, counterintuitively, the fresh product has a greater environmental impact due to food loss in the fields. Many growers only harvest their tomatoes in a single pass due to labor costs and availability constraint, as well as strict standards in what fresh produce can be sold; tomatoes that get damaged or grow later in the season are discarded.

Drawing upon her anthropology training, Naughton noted how important it is that researchers work in close cooperation with growers and harvesters to develop technology that will actually benefit them.

“We want to make sure any technology implemented is environmentally and socially sustainable, so that we don’t displace workers or put them in physically uncomfortable positions,” she said. “We don’t want to create unintended consequences.”

Naughton and colleagues at the University of South Florida have also recently launched a research collaborative with funding from the National Science Foundation to study the production of argan oil — a product in high demand for cosmetic and food use — by women in Morocco.

Over the course of the three-year project, 18 students in total will travel to Morocco to conduct ethnographic research, life cycle assessments, and geospatial analyses of argan trees and argan oil production.

Seven people in UC Merced t-shirts standing in a line on a gravel road. Two are holding white bags filled with nuts; two others are holding handfuls of small green nuts.
Colleen Naughton, third from left, and team with freshly harvested argan nuts in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Colleen Naughton

“The students will look at the production process, the human energy expended, the environmental impacts and the economic benefits, and see how they might co-design interventions that will reduce the environmental impacts and save time and labor,” said Naughton. “That’s important especially now because business is so global.”

Naughton also contributes to Secure Water Future (SWF), a collaborative of universities and nonprofits across California, Utah and New Mexico led by UC Merced’s Joshua Viers. Funded by the USDA, SWF works across disciplines to conduct research on water supply and demand, create data-driven information systems for land and water managers, and develop activities for educators and stakeholders to understand climate systems.

As a member of the SWF team, Naughton conducts farm-to-gate life cycle assessments of various crops in the water-scarce testbed areas, including alfalfa — a notoriously thirsty livestock feed crop, but one that helps to recharge groundwater aquifers — as well as orchard crops such as pecans. 

Animation by Dan Chapman

Over one-third of vegetables and three-quarters of fruits and nuts in the United States are grown in California, she noted, which emphasizes the importance of developing sustainable agriculture in the state.

“It takes a lot of energy and water to produce food, which affects other resources and can cause issues,” Naughton said. “For example, the recent rains in California have significantly affected strawberry production due to flooded fields. 

“Technology can be one of the ways that we manage producing food sustainably, and I want to make sure that we can achieve food, energy and water security for all.”

Top photo of Colleen Naughton by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced