From Art student to Civil Engineer

Issued: Thu, 02 May 2013 16:32:00 BST

‌"From an early age I was keenly interested in the arts, sciences and politics.  As a school leaver I chose to study at the Glasgow School of Art where I gained an honours degree in Environmental Art.  The art school offered me the possibility to work with art as a mechanism for reflection on the role of science and politics in society and their bearing on how people live.  As a practicing artist, my interests expanded to include the built environment and infrastructure and their impacts on the population they serve.  My personal research on these subjects progressed and increasingly it seemed that formal study might enable me to make a constructive contribution in these areas which have such strong influence on the quality of people's lives.   Civil Engineering appealed to me as a subject that is rooted in the sciences whilst requiring a creative approach to problem solving and design and, having lived in Glasgow whilst at art school, I was reluctant to leave the city and its wealth of small, independent arts and music venues.  The University of Glasgow then was my first choice of place to study not only for its reputation but because its location also ticked all the boxes for proximity to the city centre and the vibrant west end. I undertook the undergraduate course in Civil Engineering with the support of an ICE Quest Scholarship which funded me through the full five years to Masters level.  Initially the prospect of a five year degree seemed really daunting but whilst it was hard work it was really rewarding - I made good friends and developed new interests.  Over the course of my studies I joined the Glasgow student branch of Engineers Without Borders – a cross disciplinary group with interests in sustainable global development and international disaster relief. The group held informal weekly meetings inviting experts from the field to talk to students.  Involvement with EWB coupled with research experience gained as part of my dissertation project led me to develop a strong interest in water treatment and its potential for energy production.  These both inspired and informed my decision to undertake a research based PhD in the Water and Environment Group at the University.

My PhD focuses on biological treatment of wastewater coupled with the generation of renewable energy sources and my research aims to tackle real world problems such as water and energy scarcity, and climate change.  UN figures indicate that over 2.4 billion people worldwide have no access to safe fuels for cooking or heating and a further 2.5 billion people have no access to basic sanitation that is so vital to protect public health.  As part of my PhD I am working alongside ‘The Transforming Waste Project’: a multi-disciplinary research consortium involving six UK universities with student and academic members from fields as varied as the social sciences, molecular biology and product design.  Together we aim to develop new, socially and environmentally appropriate sanitation technologies by advancing the knowledge and understanding of the complex microbial processes involved in the production of biofuels from sewage.  As part of the contribution made by University of Glasgow to this project I am currently collaborating with a molecular biologist on a range of lab-scale experiments using simple ‘bioreactors’ that allow us to study the production of biogas from sewage.  Working with cutting-edge DNA extraction, fingerprinting and sequencing techniques we aim to identify which microorganisms are present in the bioreactors and what their role in the process is such that we can fully engineer the system and optimise treatment efficiency and energy production. My experiments will be used to inform the design of a pilot scale system to be trialled in collaboration with urban communities in Zambia and India.  If successful, it is hoped the resulting technology would provide opportunity to address global inequalities in health and welfare whilst providing a safe, reliable energy source for future generations in the Global North and South alike."

Lab-scale experiment: 12 x 20 litre anaerobic bioreactors treating wastewater