Panel on Early-Career Engineers
After lunch, Rebekah Green, Institute for Global and Community Resilience, Western Washington University, and Daniele Lantagne, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), addressed the group as members of a panel moderated by Joseph Le Doux, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology. Both women are junior, or early-career, engineers who have worked on social justice and sustainable community development. In their talks, they addressed the following questions:
What led you to your career choices? How do you see them in relationship to the goals of this meeting, to enhance engineering research and practice and improve engineering education through attention to issues of engineering, social justice, and sustainable community development?
Dr. Green described the choices that led her to enter the field of “disaster research,” which requires combining scientific, engineering, and community knowledge. After earning an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and several years working in a structural design firm, Dr. Green decided to do graduate work in Cornell University’s Civil Engineering Department. Her advisor allowed her to take courses in anthropology and science and technology studies, stipulating that she had to integrate the work into her dissertation research. She was able to do this by specializing in disaster studies.
In the research for her dissertation, she examined perceptions of seismic risk and building decisions in squatter settlements that comprise about 50 percent of the built environment in and around Istanbul, Turkey. She found that perceptions of physical and social risk influenced
building decisions. People in the settlements did not trust engineers and insisted on constructing buildings without engineering assistance. By working with a public education unit in Istanbul that included engineers, construction workers, sociologists, and social workers, Dr. Green developed a program to teach the public about good building to diminish seismic risk. Despite some negative reactions, the program has been integrated into trade schools and the education ministry.
“I am perceived as something that is not an engineer. I’m working there as a disaster researcher…. [My] engineering background is just sort of this interesting personal history … but I feel like more of an engineer than ever because I’m actually working towards innovating for the future which is what engineers do.”
Rebekah Green, Western Washington University
Dr. Green said other projects she undertook in Central Asia were not as successful, because the stakeholders could not agree on minimally acceptable risk. In all of the projects, she said, “we weren’t just debating technical details but professional responsibility. It was an attempt to ensure safety in an area of extremely high uncertainty. [T]he result was [not only a] compromise on technical details but also a compromise on ethical principles…. [However,] we all had to agree that these guidelines were better than nothing.” Understanding the social context in which the construction would be done was essential to ensuring that local construction companies and workers would proceed in a safer fashion than they had previously, although the new construction might not satisfy the standards taught to U.S. engineers.
Dr. Green also described her work in post-Katrina New Orleans on damage assessment and recovery plans for a low-income neighborhood. Working with 80 students from Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Illinois, Urbana, she helped develop a plan for the lower Ninth Ward that was supported by the New Orleans City Council.
Afterward, when she began looking for an academic post, she found that her priorities did not match those of traditional engineering departments, which considered sustainability and humanitarian work as complementary, rather than essential, to their programs. She now teaches in a program that trains urban planners, disaster mitigation specialists, and emergency planners, but not engineers. Nevertheless, she believes that as a “community engineer” her research and advice, although less valued
by engineers and anthropologists, may make a significant contribution to the creation of a just society.
Ms. Lantagne, CDC, described environmental engineering as a critical component of public health. Her career began with her interest in protecting rivers. With a bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in environmental engineering, she was able to use her technical engineering skills to promote sustainable watershed communities in Massachusetts. Her master’s degree, also from MIT, focused on household water treatment and involved courses at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Kennedy School) at Harvard University. In her master’s thesis, an examination of trihalomethane levels in a double-bucket filter system used in Haiti indicated that the system was safe. She subsequently has received her qualification for professional engineering in environmental engineering.
At CDC, she provides technical assistance to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in developing countries to improve water in many ways. In the past eight years, she has worked in more than 40 countries, sometimes involving a brief trip to a site, a chemical test, a quick intervention, or consultation with follow-up from local stakeholders. For instance, a small CDC team may help with water-quality testing, or product development or selection, or government approvals. Ms. Lantagne used the example of the importance of treatment of household water. The lack of properly treated water, she said, contributes greatly to the deaths of children under the age of five in many areas of the world. We have the technologies to solve this problem, she said, but the difficulty is getting them to the people who need them.
It’s important, she noted, to recognize that people with different roles describe the problem in different ways. Water must be safe to drink in a user’s cup or hands. Just because it leaves a water-treatment plant free of fecal coliform, which may be satisfactory to plant engineers, is not sufficient to ensure its safety as drinking water. The same is true of delivering water through a pipe. Ensuring the safety of drinking water will require the political will and economic planning to improve the water supply, water treatment, latrine building, and hand-washing behaviors. Technological verification of water quality is necessary, but much, much more is required for a program to be successful.
Ms. Lantagne argued that effective communication is essential to
changing habitual behaviors. A successful project requires integrating skills and knowledge from several academic fields to implement and monitor a sustainable system that can be scaled to meet community needs. In Kenya, for example, local companies prepare and bottle a very low-cost chlorine solution distributed by an international NGO marketed by radio, TV, and street theater. Midwives who use the solution recommend it to new mothers.
“We asked a woman in a rural home to give us a glass of water the way she would prepare it for a child and we test that.”
Daniele Lantagne, CDC
The discussion that followed was focused on identifying the components of an engineering curriculum or activities that would encourage students to develop a better understanding of ethical dimensions and subtleties. As the two women had said, Ms. Lantagne’s undergraduate schooling had included and encouraged both engineering content and courses outside engineering that had contributed to her approach to solving complex, poorly defined problems. Dr. Green’s schooling had not included those “outside” influences. Nevertheless, Dr. Green believes that considerations of sustainability are more encouraged today than they were when she was a student.
Environmental engineer Jonathan Essoka, Environmental Protection Agency, Philadelphia, commented that attracting students from diverse backgrounds to engineering could create a climate for more diversity in engineering education. Ms. Lantagne agreed and pointed out that the National Academy of Engineering website, EngineerGirl!, which emphasizes that the purpose of engineering is to enable young girls to become what they want to be—“whether that’s environmental justice in the States or in developing countries or building a cool spaceship, we need to do all of it,” sends a strong message about the potential social and humanitarian benefits of engineering. Dr. Agogino added that funding agencies should take the societal effects of proposed engineering research projects into consideration in their funding decisions.