Research Team

We are anthropologists and natural scientists that work at universities, private laboratories, governmental institutions, as well as non-governmental, non-profit organizations from the United States of America and Costa Rica.

Principal Investigators

Dr. Mya Breitbart, Professor, University of South Florida (USF) College of Marine Science: An environmental virologist, whose laboratory investigates diverse topics in virology using metagenomic approaches. She earned her Ph.D. at University of California, San Diego/San Diego State University in 2006 and has since been recognized as one of the “Brilliant 10” by Popular Science Magazine in 2013.

Dr. Maryann Cairns, Assistant Professor, Southern Methodist University (SMU) Anthropology: An environmental anthropologist, whose research investigates the intersection of environment, infrastructure, and health through the ethnographic study of polluted waterscapes.  She earned her Ph.D. at USF in 2014.  She was awarded the prestigious US American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Science &Technology Policy Fellowship, through which she has had the opportunity to advise on science policy related to global cross-boundary water problems.

Dr. Valerie J. Harwood, Professor and Department Chair, USF Integrative Biology: An environmental microbiologist, whose laboratory investigates public health-related water microbiology (e.g., wastewater-related pathogens and indicator organisms, microbial source tracking, antibiotic resistance). She earned her Ph.D. at Old Dominion University/Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1992 and received a US Fulbright Scholar Award to Australia in 2015.

Key Collaborators in Costa Rica

AyA National Water Lab (LNA): The official water quality laboratory of Costa Rica, whose purpose is to plan, coordinate, and execute water quality monitoring as well as environmental health-related water quality investigations with the Ministry of Health in order to protect Costa Rica’s public health. Currently, the laboratory offers over 75 analyses, which are accredited by the Costa Rican Accreditation Entity. The following individuals will lead the LNA’s participation in the MERA Investigation: Dr. Darner Mora Alvarado, LNA Director, a Microbiologist with a Masters in Public Health and Dr. Pablo César Rivera Navarro, Coordinator of the Water, Environment, and Health Research Division, a Microbiologist with his Masters in Quality Management.

Fundación MarViva: A regional, non-governmental, non-profit organization that works to promote the conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal resources in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Fundación MarViva works in Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia.

OneSea: A non-governmental, non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire positive change that will protect our oceans from contamination.

Costa Rican University Students, from a variety of Universities and disciplines, will work with the MERA Investigation to execute the Epidemiology study on the beach.

Postdoctoral Researchers

Dr. Cantor, Communications Manager and Postdoctoral Researcher

Dr. Allison R. Cantor, MERA Investigation Communications Manager and Postdoctoral Fellow in International Research and Engagement in Anthropology at SMU. She is a medical anthropologist and public health specialist with a Ph.D. in applied anthropology and Master of Public Health degree from the University of South Florida. Allison specializes in community-based participatory research in the Americas and has researched a range of health issues in the U.S., Costa Rica, and Peru, including food insecurity, Covid-19, water and sanitation, and obstetric violence. Her book on tourism and maternal health in rural Costa Rica was published in 2019. She is also an independent consultant and collaborates with organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

 Graduate Students

Megan Brown, Ph.D. student, SMU Anthropology: A public health specialist currently working on environmental/medical anthropology in Dr. Cairns’ lab, whose research interests include shifting patterns of health and disease in areas of environmental transition. She earned her M.Sc. in Global Health Policy from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2016. She received a Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility Public Service Fellowship in 2017.

Richie Thomas, Ph.D. student, SMU Anthropology: A health education specialist who is currently a research assistant in Dr. Cairns’ lab. His Ph.D. research will focus on perceptions of anthropogenic air pollution and prevention strategies for at risk individuals, and further interests include project management and statistics. He earned his M.S. in Health Promotion Management from SMU in 2017.

Adriana González Fernández, Ph.D. Student, USF Integrative Biology: A biologist specializing in biotechnology, who worked for the last three years at the Costa Rican National Water Laboratory. Her previous research includes public health-related water microbiology. Currently, her research in Dr. Harwood’s laboratory focuses on improving methods for characterizing microbial water quality in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

Javier F. Gallard-Gongora, Ph.D. Student, USF Integrative Biology: An environmental microbiologist, who recently earned his Masters in Public Health at the Georgia Southern University. His research in Dr. Harwood’s laboratory will focus on public health-related water microbiology, ranging from wastewater indicator organisms to community perceptions and knowledge on water quality.


Biological Consulting Services, INC.: A private laboratory in Gainesville, Florida, USA, that is dedicated to advanced microbial testing of environmental samples. They are accredited by numerous agencies, including the US EPA and US Center for Disease Control (US CDC).


Dr. Ulmer, HSU Assistant Professor

Dr. Gordon Ulmer, Humbolt State University Assistant Professor: An environmental and economic anthropologist, previously a SMU postdoctoral researcher,  whose research focuses on topics involving ecotourism, extractive economies, urban ecologies and infrastructures, and global development. He was awarded the Fulbright-Hays DDRA to support his doctoral work at The Ohio State University, which investigated how households in Amazonia Peru adapt to global processes involving resource extraction and biodiversity conservation. Gordon worked as a SMU MERA postdoctoral researcher May 2018 – July 2019.

Dr. Symonds, Affiliated Research Scientist

Dr. Erin M. Symonds, Affiliated Research Scientist: An environmental microbiologist, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of South Florida. Her research focuses on public health-related water microbiology, specifically identifying wastewater-related pathogens in the environment and quantifying the associated human health risks. She was a US Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results (EPA STAR) fellow and received a US Student Research Fulbright Fellowship. Erin worked with the MERA Investigation from its inception to August 2021.