All over the world today people will be celebrating World Water Day and reflecting on the current issues facing the world with regards to water scarcity, pollution, flooding and droughts. 2018 is also the Year of Engineering, and it’s clear that engineers will be integral to helping tackle these issues to ensure access to water is safe and sustainable in the years to come.
Chemical engineers working in the water sector are making a huge difference already. In today’s blog, our new Water Special Interest Group Chair, Dr Martin Currie talks about his vibrant water career – working all over the world, and using his engineering prowess to help make a difference in the developing world.
This month’s Year of Engineering theme is ‘Routes into Engineering’ – we hope Martin’s account inspires you to consider a career as a chemical engineer in the water industry.
Name: Dr Martin Currie
Job: Water Quality & Treatment Consultant
Special Interest Group: Chair of IChemE’s Water SIG
Potable water is arguably the single most important product of engineering. It saves more lives than any drug or safety feature we have conceived.
On World Water Day I would like to encourage you to help share the joy of safe (chemically engineered) water through our charity: water campaign. This had already raised enough money to bring clean water to 59 people by 9am this morning. I also hope this and details of my career helps encourage aspiring engineers into the industry.
I knew I wanted to be a Chemical Engineer long before discovering that I wanted to be a Water Engineer. I had wanted to be a PhD qualified inventor since I was 5. When I was 12, my grandfather helped me realise the grown-up term for my aspiration was chemical engineering.
I had also always wanted to help in developing countries. Part-way through my MEng in Chemical Engineering with Biotechnology, I asked a careers advisor how chemical engineers could best help in the developing world. Their answer was water, and I found this revelation equally transformative.
The carefully worded rejections to summer job applications I received from several leading charities, helped me understand that I only knew enough to be dangerous. So, I decided to wait until I had my PhD and more to offer.
This is where my career somewhat diverged from my career plans… I would advise any PhD candidate to invest any excess grant on the off-chance that, like me, the breakthrough required for your PhD doesn’t arrive until after the funding term runs out.
Saddled with significant debt, I set out in independent consulting. I found myself shovelling escape media back into a moving bed bioreactor landfill leachate pilot plant over Christmas. Not quite living the dream of providing pure water in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the consultants I worked with advised me to get some real-world big-company experience.
So, I joined Thames Water (working under then IChemE Water SIG Chair, Nick Fawcett) and got back to designing potable water treatment works, with the hope of an international posting.
Thames were pulling back from international work, so after gaining UK experience, I took a business development role with Atkins, leading their Middle East water utilities development from a base in Dubai, where the PhD debts were soon paid off.
Qualified, experienced and debt free, I was raring to get on with my developing world water aspirations. I found however, that the same NGOs who wanted experienced candidates wouldn’t place staff with children in field roles, and wouldn’t take on office staff who didn’t have field experience. This is a catch-22 that many seeking to work in the development and relief sectors find themselves. If you have any inclinations toward 3rd sector work, I’d recommend getting field experience as soon as you can, unpaid if necessary.
We did however manage a wonderful five years in Mauritius after Dubai, where I got back into independent consultancy, and then moved back to Scotland at the end of 2016.
Kick-start your career
If you’re considering a career in the water industry, the Water SIG are holding a careers panel on 16 April at the 19th UK International Water Association’s Young Water Professionals’ conference, I’ll be chairing it and would love to chat more with you then. If you can’t make it feel free to contact me.
Change the world
In terms of careers, I think Elon Musk did it right. He reflected on the world issues and determined how he can be most useful, then kick-started the electric car industry and interplanetary travel, among other things.
To me, water is still our most important physical need. While there are many areas in which chemical engineers can improve water treatment, I think there are two big areas where we can help now.
The first is dissemination of knowledge and expertise. There are adequate treatment technologies available for almost all water sources, the difficulty is knowing which to choose and how to implement it. For this reason, we set up Aqueum, and I am currently learning the web-technologies required to build expert systems that will help NGOs determine the best course of action for any water situation.
The second is financing water projects, something that I realised charity: water were particularly good at, back when we were in Dubai. Charity: water now have a UK operation, which continues their 100% model: Private donors cover their operating expenses, so that 100% of our donations go to bring clean water to people in need.
If you do nothing else on World Water Day, please click this link, and donate to share the gift of clean water.