By Djuna Gulliver
Dr. Vinka Oyanedel-Craver, Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Rhode Island, became interested in water research during her undergraduate degree. Starting with waste water treatment, her research interests slowly moved to point-of-use water treatment technologies in rural areas. “Water is essential for both individual health and community development,” Dr. Oyanedel -Craver says. “However, most of the time it is overlooked because most infrastructure is so out-of-sight.” When infrastructure is updated, Dr. Oyanedel-Craver argues that consequences are often not researched or communicated to the public. “New technologies are usually a black box to the people and most the time we implement them without figuring out the long-term implications.”
While Dr. Oyanedel -Craver was driven to increase research in this subject, she also recognized the worldwide lack of women in leadership positions in the water sector, both in academic and industry. “Without women in leadership positions in the water sector and policy, it is not possible implement development strategies that can benefit everyone,” she explains. Dr. Oyanedel -Craver set out to increase awareness of the effect of water on the community, while also promoting women in leadership. She became one of the founding members of the Women-Water Nexus (WWN) Committee at the ASCE Environmental and Water Resource Institute. Now, she is the Chair of the Women-Water Nexus, which aims to develop a network of women scientists and engineers in developed and developing countries that promote research in water treatment and water resources. The group also focuses on the education of future women scientists and engineers.
Dr. Laura Schifman, a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow became involved in the Women-Water Nexus when Dr. Oyanedel-Craver, her former Ph. D mentor, asked if she would become vice-chair. “Of course I said yes,” she says. “Throughout pursuing my PhD, I was always aware that I was one of a few females in the room during engineering conferences, we had significantly more men in the geosciences department that I graduated from, and men were being highlighted more for their work in the field I was working in. The WWN seemed like a perfect way to work with other female scientists and engineers to empower women internationally and give them a trusting network they can rely on when it comes to mentoring.”
Dr. Schifman understands the power of decision-making in the water section. “Water is the ultimate currency. Everything we do, whether it is industry related, agriculture, or constructing a new building, it relies on water.” And for her, the ties between water and women are clear. “In the global south, women are usually the ones tasked with maintaining the water source in the house. This is a very important role, but somehow there is a huge disconnect between what happens in the transition from those situations and who ends up in the decision-making roles for water resources management of a city, county, or country.”
Dr. Schifman was not always passionate about this subject, and instead dreamed of becoming a dentist. But to meet her undergraduate class requirements, she signed up for Aquatic Ecology. In that class, there was one lab experiment that stood out. “We stood in a stream, kicking up larvae of insects. Because some insects are better at tolerating poor water quality, you can get an understanding of water quality depending on the kind of insects you find,” Dr. Schifman explains. “That got me hooked and instead of applying to dental school I pursued a MS in Hydrology and Water Resources Management followed by my PhD in Environmental Science.” She now works on sustainable city planning, researching the physical and chemical processes in urban soils and tying it into urban green spaces and green infrastructure. She can then use this research to understand how the use of the natural water cycle can lead to improved air and water quality, access to green space, and flood mitigation. “Overall, I hope to highlight the value of urban green spaces so we can start to incorporate more of them in the (re)design of our cities.”
The Women-Water Nexus, still in its early phase, is currently recruiting members, and planning its first few programs. “We are starting to develop our network, hopefully by early next year we can start our mentoring program and support activities looking to create gender inclusive training for the water sector,” Dr. Oyanedel-Craver says. One of the aspects of this mentoring program will be to give women assistance and feedback on preparing presentations for international conferences. The Women-Water Nexus is also hoping to perform an international survey to inform them on the current number of women leadership positions, the pathway they took to get there, and the common hurdles. “Bringing this information to light can hopefully inspire the next generation of women to aim high,” Dr. Schifman says. Both Dr. Oyanedel-Craver and Dr. Schifman hope the Women-Water Nexus will grow into a vibrant community that provide support to women around the world achieve their full potential.
If you are interested in participating with the Women-Water Nexus, visit the Women-Water Nexus website for more information.