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Siddhartha Roy was only a graduate student in 2015 when he found himself in the unlikeliest of public battles: a fierce fight with the state of Michigan, the federal government, and the actor Mark Ruffalo.

At the time, LeeAnne Walters, a local water activist, had already discovered that the city of Flint, Michigan was violating federal law and that residents were being exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their water. After repeated pleas from Walters and a whistleblower complaint from within the Environmental Protection Agency failed to spur a federal response, concerned residents turned to Roy and his then-Ph.D. adviser, Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards, with a dire request for help.

“We had already lost the city fight, the state fight, and the federal government fight,” said Walters. “So reaching out to Marc and Sid was the last resort to sounding the alarm and getting the help we needed.”

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Together, Roy, Edwards, and a team of volunteers from Virginia Tech worked with residents of Flint to undertake what the city and state refused to  — a comprehensive survey of the city’s water system aided by residents adhering to strict sampling protocols. The results were staggering: Lead levels in about 5,000 homes were above safety standards, with some houses exceeding hazardous waste levels.

Roy joined the chorus sounding an alarm as the de facto communications director for the team of scientists and residents, throwing him headfirst into a fight with city and state officials who discredited the team’s findings and described researchers as lead magicians specializing in pulling the lead “rabbit out of that hat everywhere they go.” (Several of these officials later resigned or were indicted on charges including tampering with evidence, conspiracy, and willful neglect of duty.)

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“Agencies were countering us, in newspapers and in the public. It was excruciating.” said Roy. As the crisis progressed, Roy and his colleagues also batted back faulty information spread by a nonprofit helmed by Mark Ruffalo that had swooped in with good intentions to help. But Roy and the rest of the team had a weapon no one else did: “We had the data on our side.”

It’s highly unusual for an engineer like Roy to become involved in such a heated and public debate. But Roy, who was recently named a STAT Wunderkind, is part of a new crop of researchers whose impact goes beyond making discoveries in a laboratory. At a time when trust in science is deteriorating, these researchers are reaching out directly to the public and forging relationships with communities to address urgent public health issues. Their work serves as a vital check on misinformation — even when that means correcting other scientists and government institutions.

“You are breaking the norms of the profession, which is to not speak ill of other engineers or scientists, to uphold your higher loyalty to protecting the public welfare,” said Edwards. “It’s necessary and high profile and stressful.”

Roy, now a research scientist at Virginia Tech, has taken a winding path in pursuit of a career that serves both science and society.

In his journey, Roy sees parts of his father, a professor of dairy technology, who fostered Roy’s love for learning, as well as his mother, a stay-at-home parent with a master’s degree in psychology, who nurtured his empathy.

“My parents came from a lot of poverty,” said Roy, who was raised in India. “But my mom, if you tell her a story about someone, she will actually feel their pain. So I have the melding of the love of science and using it for the public good.”

After earning an undergraduate degree from Nirma University, Roy was on track to become an engineer at an IT consulting firm but felt that the position lacked meaning or the ability to forge his own direction.

“If you feel like you’re becoming a yes-man, it becomes harder for you to exercise independence in thought and action,” said Roy. “Your job is to go along with whatever the people at the top want, but what if something wrong is happening?”

Virginia Tech students from professor Marc Edwards’ lab and other student volunteers work on a second round of testing water for lead contamination. The researchers sampled water in Flint, Mich., homes including Elnora Carthan’s (left) in 2016. (Courtesy Virginia Tech) Courtesy Siddhartha Roy

Deciding that a career in environmental engineering would be more rewarding, Roy enrolled at Virginia Tech as a graduate student in 2012. To Roy, safe drinking water is a timeless and endlessly interesting problem that spans ancient history, when people were drawing directly from rivers, to the present day when communities worry about toxins in their tap.

Roy also saw his graduate training as an opportunity to fix a growing gap between the public and engineers, who are trained to solve complex technical problems but not necessarily how to think deeply on the ways their work affects society.

“He’s always been interested in the human side of engineering and our aspiration for ethics as well as the reality that we are too frequently coming up short,” said Edwards, who first met Roy in an ethics in engineering course that the professor was leading and offered a Roy a research assistantship based on an essay written for the class.

“Water is something that affects all people,” said Roy. “And what better way to spend your career than trying to help communities build trust in their water. Hopefully, in the long term, [my research] creates a society that trusts scientists and expertise.”

Roy is still working to help Flint regain faith in its water. After sounding the alarm on high lead levels, he found himself confronting yet another crisis: a vacuum of scientific authority that became a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and misleading assertions about water safety. Even after an overhaul of their water infrastructure, residents still use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and bathing.“Many have said they would never touch tap water again,” said Roy. “And if I were them, I would probably do the same.”

Numerous organizations and people have contributed to the breakdown in trust. Because public health agencies had falsely claimed that the water was safe at the onset of the crisis, any new data from the government showing progress was greeted by locals with skepticism. This hesitation was compounded by groups of residents, activists, and journalists who either mistakenly or deliberately violated testing protocols and proclaimed that the water quality was getting worse when it was actually improving.

“It was the Wild West,” Roy said, describing how alarming data obtained using faulty testing methods was shared on social media and the news. “Anyone could come in and throw out sound bites and then people didn’t know who or what to trust.”

A prominent culprit, according to Roy, was Water Defense, a nonprofit run by the actor Mark Ruffalo, that provided residents with sponges originally designed for cleaning up oil spills to perform water sampling. These sponges had never been calibrated against any accepted water testing standard and often picked up chemicals in the air, such as acetone from nail polish.

“Ruffalo’s team did a lot of damage,” said Roy, “They scared people into thinking that the water was not safe for bathing or showering.”

Water Defense is no longer active, but its former volunteer chief investigator Scott Smith said that the group spread misinformation unintentionally. “You get on the ground in Flint and you see people suffering,” he said. “We were trying to use a new technology on a voluntary, free basis.” Smith later worked with Roy and Edwards to correct Water Defense’s claims regarding water safety.

Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, a nonprofit that helps organizations tackle the challenges of misinformation, sees parallels between the Flint water crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both events centered on public health issues where people struggled to obtain vital information. In the case of Flint, officials were willfully neglectful. And during the pandemic, health authorities have been slow to respond and guidance has evolved due to the complexities of understanding an emerging virus.

Siddhartha Roy, an environmental engineer and research scientist at Virginia Tech,  holds up a sample of the lead-laden Flint drinking water in the lab at Virginia Tech. (Courtesy Virginia Tech) Stephanie Klein-Davis for STAT

“Those vacuums — which emerged when people didn’t have the answers — got filled by conspiracy theorists who provided clear, simple explanations,” said Wardle. “As humans, we much prefer that feeling than the ambiguity of just wait and see.”

Wardle also observed that the disinformation landscape creates opportunities for individuals to engage directly in a discussion, as opposed to guidance from health agencies, which is often dictated to the public.

“If you spend any time in anti-vaccine communities, they ask you to do your own research and share your side effect story,” said Wardle. “People feel like they are being heard, like they have agency.”

Wardle, Roy, and Walters believe that carefully run citizen science, where established scientists collaborate with residents to investigate issues affecting their community, can help people regain trust in scientific and public institutions. Such partnerships would allow people to channel their desire for knowledge in a positive direction as well as help them understand how data are gathered and interpreted. For some residents, talking to researchers would be a valuable opportunity to build relationships with scientists that they otherwise would not have.

For Walters, it was empowering to have a working relationship with Roy and his colleagues in which they treated residents as equals and valued their lived experiences and concerns.

“Sid calls me a sister nowadays, and I call him my brother,” she said. “That speaks to the kind of person he is after all this time working together.”

Roy also believes that learning and following the scientific method can help both the public and scientists overcome internal bias and the tendency to double down when one’s views are challenged. He sees science not just as a method for discovery, but as a practice that strengthens people’s willingness to be proven wrong and amend their core beliefs about what is true.

“All of us should be a bit more of a scientist than we are,” he said, “and we would be more comfortable with our beliefs.”

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