Meet Onja Davidson Raoelison: 2023 AWWA Woodard & Curran Scholarship Recipient

“Science workplace environment has been known for decades as being hostile to women and people of color,” wrote Onja Davidson Raoelison, a doctoral candidate at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), in her scholarship application. “I take pride in being a Black woman in engineering, encouraging students to overcome their struggles, fears, and doubts, as I have overcome many challenges in my life.”

Woodard & Curran recognizes that we are a microcosm of our industry and society at large which has a history of systemic inequities. These structural barriers directly impact our industry and are counter to our mission, vision, and values. In 2014, we launched our internal diversity and inclusion program.

As part of our effort to address inequities, we have developed some scholarship programs, including the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Woodard & Curran Scholarship established in 2017. This annual scholarship awards $5,000 to members of historically marginalized communities, such as women and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), pursuing an advanced degree as a means of advancing equity in the industry. Raoelison is this year’s recipient as she works to complete her doctorate in environmental engineering.

“We are impressed with Onja’s dedication to the environmental engineering profession, her excellent publication record, and research relevant to California’s concerns about the impact of wildfires on water quality and green infrastructure initiatives,” said Srivalli Sukuru, Project Manager, and member of the Scholarship Selection Committee. “She is a strong leader with a clear path for her future that will inspire others from underrepresented groups in the industry.”

“Onja’s dissertation topic is on designing climate-resilient stormwater treatment systems to mitigate the negative impact of wildfire-derived waste on surface water quality,” wrote Doctor Sanjay Mohanty, UCLA Assistant Professor, in a recommendation letter to the Scholarship Selection Committee. “Wildfires are typically associated with poor air quality, but they leave behind burned residues that have a lasting impact on water quality. Surface water resources in remote areas are used for drinking water in California, and they are all going to be affected by wildfires. As wildfire frequency is increasing, it is critical to develop a natural method to protect them. Onja’s research is going to help develop some of those strategies. The results of her work will improve the mechanistic understanding of the fate and transport of wildfire-related contaminants in stormwater green infrastructures.”

Raoelison was born in Madagascar and moved to France when she was three years old. She said her name, which means “wave” in Malagasy, “genuinely describes my passion for water, leading me to a meaningful career path to solutions for providing safe water to vulnerable communities…. Basic access to safe water could save lives. This is one of the reasons I wanted to become an environmental engineer.”

More than half the population in her birth country experiences water poverty, leading to serious health concerns. When she moved to California to study at UCLA, she realized that while the situation there is less dire, the high frequency of wildfires is impacting the already scarce water resources across the state.


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“My research focuses on mitigating the negative impacts of wildfires on surface water quality using green infrastructures…In fact, my work could inform scientists, policymakers, government agencies, and private sectors in developing plans to design green infrastructure downstream of fire-prone areas. My research will help develop a long-term management plan to mitigate the adverse impact of increasing wildfires in California and other parts of the world affected by wildfires by protecting surface water resources.”

Onja Davidson Raoelison University of California Los Angeles Doctoral Candidate

Raoelison’s goal after defending her dissertation next year is to conduct postdoctoral research and pursue a faculty position thereafter.

“I have overcome many challenges in my life as a Black woman in engineering,” said Raoelison, who is fueled to succeed by her grandfather’s sister “Babi” who was nominated in 2005 for a Nobel Peace Prize for promoting gender equality and empowering women in Madagascar. Raoelison points out that most of her classes through higher education in engineering have had less than 30 percent female enrollment. “Babi has been my inspiration and my motivation to achieve growth and excellence on personal and academic levels and to promote diversity and equity. Therefore, I was always interested in fulfilling leadership roles to empower minorities, especially women.”

It’s safe to say that Raoelison has already made a big impact in her research, publications, and community engagement. As a Graduate Student Association representative on the Community Activities Committee at UCLA, she served as the liaison for 11 community service programs working with populations that face systemic economic and societal barriers. She also served as an instructor for 20 transfer students in the UCLA Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity.

“My current leadership positions at UCLA give me the opportunity to impact, serve, advocate and amplify the voices of underrepresented minority students,” she said. “Teaching allows me to empower my students to examine their knowledge and the world they live in and train them with a voice to be heard and a perspective to share.”

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