As engineers and scientists, we understand that many of our society’s problems will be left to the next generation to solve. That’s why we, as a firm, have continued to increase our commitment to the next generation of leaders. Additionally, we believe that to solve our growing problems in more efficient and innovative ways our field needs to diversify. Last year we established the AWWA Woodard & Curran Scholarship to support a deserving woman and/or minority student who is pursuing an advanced degree in water treatment to contribute to this growing need.
We are pleased to introduce you to this year’s recipient: Nicollette Laroco. Nicolette is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder with a strong background in environmental engineering and a keen tenacity to solve our pressing water resource problems. Srivalli Sukuru, a project engineer in our Middletown, CT office, sat down with Nicolette to gain a deeper insight into Nicolette’s studies and her passions as an engineer.
Srivalli: The Woodard & Curran Scholarship will be supporting your graduate studies. Can you tell us a little bit about graduate school so far, why you choose to study environmental engineering, your research, and what questions you seek to answer?
Nicollette: As a California native, my interest in the water field and growing concern in our limited water resources started after California’s driest years, 2012-2015. I had just started college, and I sought to pursue environmental engineering because I found engineering to be a creative process to tackle grand challenges. Throughout my undergrad, I found that the skills that reside within environmental engineering are fundamental to achieve a much broader range of sustainability goals that include water, energy, health, food security, and reduction of poverty and social inequalities. Involvement in Engineers Without Borders, allowed me to put these skillsets into action, where I helped design water catchment tank systems, providing clean drinking water to more than 1,000 people in rural communities in Nepal.
Currently, I am a graduate student in the Environmental Engineering program at the University of Colorado, with an emphasis in Engineering for Developing Communities. The goal of my graduate studies is to bridge the gap in water and wastewater treatment and energy recovery to further the water-energy nexus and global bio-economy. The goal of my research is to addresses some of the most significant challenges in the environmental field that currently limit efficient energy recovery from water and wastewater treatment.
Srivalli: How did you become interested in bioenergy and bioresource recovery in water and wastewater treatment systems?
Nicollette: This passion started as an undergrad when I was taking a combination of Fundamentals of Environmental Engineering, Sustainability for Engineers, Water Resources and Treatment, and Microbiology where I learned and really connected two things: 1) how undervalued the resources are within wastewater is leading to the paradigm shift from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) to resource recovery facilities (RRFs), and 2) the growing need for research and innovation in water-energy systems. Learning these concepts motivated me to pursue research and graduate study because I believe there is huge potential to tackle some of our current global water and energy challenges.
Srivalli: What’s has been the most rewarding (or challenging) part of your research so far?
Nicollette: As part of the Engineering for Developing Communities Program, last summer I did a summer internship in India. I worked with a nonprofit organization that fights alongside rural communities to eliminate open defecation by building sanitation facilities and energy recovery systems and providing access to clean drinking water through biogas powered filtration systems. The work of this nonprofit was motivated by the fact that 60% of rural India practice open defecation, 80% of rural households in Bihar, India have no access to power, and more than 800 million people in India do not have basic drinking water services. I modeled the biogas production potential from their digesters and identified appropriate biogas to biomethane technologies for rural communities. I also empowered women-led groups in these communities to seek management and leadership roles.
I found the experience extremely rewarding. It tapped into my engineering skillsets to improve the lives of communities in India through water, wastewater, and energy security and is what lead me to pursue graduate research at CU Boulder at the intersection of these systems.
Srivalli: What challenges, if any, have you faced as a woman in the environmental engineering field?
Nicollette: As a woman in engineering, I think having confidence and speaking up in a male-dominated field is one of the biggest challenges I have faced. Socially, we can be taught that being an assertive, confident woman can be perceived as intimidating, conceited, bossy, or boastful. I have had to find my voice and the value of my work and speak up for that.
My first few years in engineering were challenging, as I felt I did not belong. I would look around in my calculus or physics classes and see mostly men. And the scarcity of women can be isolating. I had to gain the confidence that I have value in this field, I am here to learn, and I belong here. This confidence did not develop overnight; it took time, training, and long conversations with my mom – who was one of the only a few women in software engineering at her college and workplace and has gone through some of the same feelings. She would always encourage me to continue to work hard, sometimes twice as hard, and would always say her favorite quote: “The greatest discovery one can make is that nothing is impossible.”
Additionally, I think it is important to note that although the STEM gender gap still exists, environmental engineering is closer to closing that gap as 40% of the field is female. And this is awesome. I believe environmental engineering is setting a trend for the rest of the engineering field and I am excited to see more women study and work in STEM.
Srivalli: Do you have any advice to young girls interested in pursuing a degree in the field?
Nicollette: Do it. With perseverance and hard work, you can do anything. I find engineering to be an extremely creative process, the opportunity to tackle big challenges, and use problem solving as a path towards innovation and sustainability. I hope other young girls are inspired to find engineering in the same creative light as I have.
I also recommend finding a community of women to support you. Joining groups like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) have really helped me connect with other women and find a community and support system.