A Hazard without Borders

  • Hazards without Borders
    Hazards without Borders
    Those CFL "swirly" bulbs reduce your home's carbon footprint, but Dan Cristol and Sharon Zuber know they also contain mercury and lose a large hunk of their environmental friendliness unless they are recycled. The two are coordinators of an s-GIG centered around mercury.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • A Bowl of Mercury
    A Bowl of Mercury
    Mercury is used in many South American gold mines. The silvery mercury is mixed with the ore, then boiled off, leaving pure gold--and serious environmental issues.
  • Mercury in Birds
    Mercury in Birds
    Neuroscience major Liz Budrionis is working with Sharon Zuber to produce a documentary video on Dan Cristol's research on mercury in birds along the Shenandoah River.

What do the Han River in China, gold mines in Ecuador, and swallows in the Shenandoah Valley have in common? All are current subjects of faculty research at William & Mary, but the thread that ties them together lends a very distinct silver to the Green and Gold—as in the color of mercury. All three projects focus on mercury contamination, an increasingly prevalent problem across the globe. And they form the core of a faculty-led Global Inquiry Group at W&M titled “Mercury: A Hazard without Borders.”

Global Inquiry Groups, or “GIGs” as they’re better known on campus, are collaborative faculty projects devoted to issues of international significance. Launched in fall 2006 by the Reves and Charles Centers, the venture aims to bring scholars together from across disciplines, departments, and schools, encouraging them to explore new research and teaching interests.

The serendipitous origins of the Mercury GIG are a powerful example of how unexpected connections can lead to profound insights. Back in October 2006, Biology professor Dan Cristol approached Sharon Zuber, a colleague in English and Film Studies, about a student documentary related to his project on mercury contamination amongst Shenandoah Valley songbirds. Zuber happened to be hosting Dr. Xiong Li, a visiting scholar from Wuhan, China, who was working along with VIMS Professor Mike Newman on heavy metals in the environment. After discovering they all shared an interest in mercury, the professors began meeting and brainstorming, exploring the potential for collaborative work. “Our ideas collided,” recalls Zuber, “and like a chemical reaction, generated new ideas and energy.”

The momentum they created led to the current GIG, which includes faculty from Biology, History, Film Studies, Sociology, and Art. As their work shows, mercury really is a “hazard without borders,” whether geographical or disciplinary; the GIG projects range from a student research and service-learning project in Ecuador, to an eco-toxicology course taught at both VIMS and in China, to a Muscarelle exhibit that featured sculpture made by students at W&M and Musahino University in Tokyo. As varied as these initiatives are, what they all share is a concern with mercury contamination and a commitment to collaborative scholarship. “With their emphasis on thinking across disciplines and cultures,” says Zuber, “the GIGs get faculty across campus and continents talking.”