WMU News

Visiting Azerbaijani student takes pollution clean-up methods home

June 22, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- An Azerbaijani student who hopes to one day help clean up the pollution of his home country's Caspian Sea is in Kalamazoo learning methods to do just that.

Samir Efendiev, a mechanical engineer from Azerbaijan, is at Western Michigan University as part of the Environmental Management Fellowship Program of the Open Society Institute. The two-year program provides environmental professionals from countries in the former Soviet Union with the educational background they need to create sound environmental policy, legislation and remediation techniques in their home countries. As a participant in the program, Efendiev is in the United States to work on a master's degree in environmental engineering at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

To fulfill the programs' internship requirement, Efendiev came to WMU this summer to study the bioremediation of soil and ground water contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons. He is working with researchers in WMU's Department of Geosciences.

Once a republic of the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea. Baku, Azerbaijan's largest city and Efendiev's hometown, served as the primary oil base for the Soviet Union and was home to the Oil Academy School. Efendiev explains that because of the country's long history of petroleum production, environmental contamination is prevalent.

"The Caspian Sea is heavily fished and is a concern to all the Caspian states," he says. "With the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries no longer have to work with a Soviet central government, they can now get outside help to deal with these problems."

Efendiev's work at WMU is primarily with Dr. Daniel P. Cassidy, assistant professor of geosciences. Cassidy's research specialty is the biodegradation of petroleum contaminants by microorganisms that exist in soil and water. Cassidy and Efendiev are researching these organisms' production of biosurfactants or bioemulsifiers, which allow the microbes to consume the petroleum compounds more rapidly.

"Petroleum has been present in the environment for millions of years, so these microorganism have evolved and already exist," Cassidy explains. "We're not creating anything new here, but we are looking for ways to control the microorganisms to turn this ability on and off and perhaps make the microorganism do this work more quickly."

A former environmental consultant with a Norwegian firm, Efendiev is studying these biosurfactants to determine their viability in efforts to remediate the contaminated sites in Azerbaijan. Efendiev says that one of the attractions of this bioremediation method is its cost effectiveness.

"Many of the republics of the Soviet Union became small countries when the Soviet Union broke up and now it is more important for them to find cheaper ways to treat the soil," Efendiev says.

Efendiev notes that he is not alone in his studies of ways to treat environmental contamination in Azerbaijan. Other scholars are engaged in similar programs in other parts of the world and he says he looks forward to comparing notes with them.

"It is very useful to bring the American experience back and to be able to combine what I've learned with the others," he says. "There are different treatment methods in different countries. Each country has a different preference for what method it uses. You get good ideas from the different approaches."

Efendiev has seen many different approaches since he has been in the United States. Upon his arrival, he first went to an orientation program at the University of Idaho and then on to Alaska, both Western states that have different methods of environmental management than those found in the Eastern United States. Because Azerbaijan is a small country with nine different climate zones, the diversity of climates and methods in the United States offers many similar examples for Efendiev to study.

"America has it all," he says.

While America offers many methods to emulate, one thing that may not have translated so well for Efendiev was America's use of the word "Caucasian." Azerbaijan includes the Caucus
Mountains and those from that region are referred to there as Caucasians. Efendiev says that when they first arrived in the United States and were filling out forms, he and a fellow Azerbaijani colleague were heartened to see Caucasian listed as an ethnicity option.

"We were excited because we thought they had established a special category on the form just for us," he recalls. He has since learned that the term in America applies to those of white, Euro-American descent which he finds amusing.

"Caucasians are like me," he says. "They have darker skin and eyes. It's a very mixed, multi-lingual area."

In August, Efendiev will return to Alaska to finish his master's program. Upon graduation in May, he is anxious to return to his native land and put his newfound knowledge to work.

"There's a huge scope of work to be done there," he says, "and huge potential for environmental engineers. The demand is very high there and everywhere."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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