Like many engineering students, Hannah Lohman chose to study engineering because she knew it applied math and science. After several months of trying to make it on her own, Hannahâ€”and many of her fellow studentsâ€”realized they needed to help each other. Teamwork, it seems, is necessary if you want your work to make a global impact. Over the last three years, Hannah has traveled to several different countries as part of a global collaborative effort with research and educational institutions, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders. To address the water, health, sanitation, energy, and food security challenges, they live and meet with those they wish to serve, to understand the social implications and build community ownership before applying technical solutions.
During spring 2016, her CEE 449 class (in partnership with the Safe Global Water Institute at Illinois) travelled to Rwanda to complete field tests to bring clean water to a refugee camp. Prior to graduation this spring, Hannah was chosen to receive the Harvey H. Jordan Award, recognizing the scholastic achievement and character of an outstanding senior. We sat down with Hannah to ask about her experience with CEE 449 in Rwanda this spring, and the impact her education at Illinois has had on her outlook toward the future.
Hannah Lohman, Environmental Engineering
The 2016 Harvey H. Jordan Award recipient and current graduate student in Environmental Engineering talks about her Illinois education, and solving global water challenges through passion and collaboration.
1 | Why did you choose to pursue civil and environmental engineering at Illinois?
I settled on civil and environmental engineering because it was a way that I could work on projects that actually helped people, and I could see how these projects would make a difference in the lives of others. I chose Illinois because it’s one of the best places for civil engineering, and it’s also a really large school so there are a lot of opportunities to interact with other people both inside and outside my major, which is especially important on engineering projects.
2 | What attracted you to safe global water challenges?
Outside of class I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with food kitchens and in underdeveloped areas. I picked environmental engineering because it allowed me to combine the idea of helping other people with my love for volunteering. My interest in water came about because we have a lot of water-related classes for environmental engineering, and I think it’s a big topic for a lot of the faculty. And so I chose to pursue water challenges because it’s a huge problem that we’re facing now and in the future. There are so many people that don’t have access to clean water and sanitation, and I felt like it was the best way for me to contribute.
3 | How did you get involved with CEE 449 and the Safe Global Water Institute?
Everyone who focuses on environmental engineering is required to take CEE 449, which is cool because I think a lot of people have an interest in international development but don’t have a way to pursue it. I wanted to travel because I think that brings a lot more to the table when doing design work because you actually experience the culture, and you can ask questions about what they actually need, which makes the projects much more meaningful for the communities you’re helping.
4 | Tell us about the work you did with SGWI in Sub-Saharan Africa.
It was the first trip to Rwanda, as past trips have been to Kenya and Uganda. So this trip was really big because we were going without really knowing what we were getting into. We visited several communities in the areas surrounding a refugee camp, and came up with three projects. My project focused on a lake region in Rwanda, and the other projects focused on a school and an existing water treatment plant. Some days we would interview community members, other days we would collect water samples and run lab tests to figure out what was actually in the water. When you’re dealing with a surface water (lake) source, there are a lot of problems that can happen with debris and runoff from mountains and the surrounding areas. So our design looked at coming up with an inlet structure to collect the water, then moving the water into basic chambers that helped settle out the debris with chemical reactions, and then it would go into more filters that would take out the small organics, and eventually through a disinfection process that would kill the pathogens and viruses that cause illness. And then we also looked at building a solar pump that would bring the water from the system to the community members in the surrounding hills, and designed some tanks to store the water.
5 | Is this design intervention sustainable and scalable to other parts of the world?
Our design was specific to that area, but we were also thinking about how that design could be implemented in a potential pilot plant in Uganda. Based on specific needs of the situation, you could include or exclude some of these technologies in the line. I could definitely see these being implemented in other areas too.
6 | In what ways has the CEE 449 experience helped to prepare you for the next steps in your academic and professional career?
I played a unique role on campus because I had the opportunity to be a team leader. That was a really rewarding experience because I learned how to manage 15 people on a team and figure out how we could come up with these technologies and bring it together for a final report in the end. So I was able to do a lot of design work but also improve my management and communication skills as well. For my academic and professional career, I want to focus on large-scale international development with water and with energy, to improve the lives of people in developing countries and in the United States. It would give me satisfaction every day going into work if I could find a way to improve the lives of others.
7 | Can you describe the CEE 449 learning and design process leading up to the actual trip?
At the beginning of the class we learned through lectures about the various technologies that you could implement for these systems, and then everyone was divided into their own specific technologies that they researched. So everyone had a focus and became an expert in one area. And then once we figured out what was actually in the water, we discussed as a team what we thought were the primary contaminants that we wanted to remove, and then people would speak up about whether or not their technologies would work. We had long conversations about which would be best, and when we settled on those we moved into the design phase, where we created dimensions and looked at the chemical concentrations we would need to make the water clean in the end.
8 | Can you talk about the interdisciplinary nature of this project?
I think it’s very interdisciplinary, because you’re dealing with that behavioral change. I think it’s really important to have the technical expertise of engineers, but also people that are experienced in the social side and the economic side. You are implementing new technologies in a new area, so you need to understand every part of approaching these problems.
9 | What will it take to change the perception of water as a renewable resource?
It’s a difficult topic, because even here we don’t really reuse our water. So it’s hard to go into developing communities and ask them to reuse their water if we won’t even do it. But I think, especially in the future, it’s something that we do need to consider with the water scarcity and climate change problems that are occurring. Coming up with a way for more people to reuse their water would solve a lot of problems. The nice thing about working in developing countries is that the infrastructure isn’t already established, so we can bring in new ideas based on lessons from the mistakes that we’ve made in the United States and in other developed countries around the world. One way to improve this is through looking at centralized versus decentralized systems. In the United States, we have one location where we have the treatment, so we bring all the water to that one location, which can be really expensive for pumping and it just doesn’t always make sense to bring water to one spot. So for our designs we looked at using point-of-use, or decentralized systems, and focus on cleaning the water at the site instead of wasting energy to bring water to one location.
10 | What was the overall experience like for you going to Africa?
I wasn’t sure what it would be like, because I had never been to Africa. I don’t even know what I was expecting! But when I got there, the infrastructure was better than I expected and the people were really nice. I wanted to do international development, and this experience showed another side of that, and really instilled in me a sense of—yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing in the future.
11 | Has it changed your perspective on how we consume water in the United States?
I guess I do feel sad for what people take for granted here, when there are people in the world who are struggling to find clean water. We can just turn on a faucet, and it’s there. We don’t have to worry about potentially getting sick the next day, or whether or not we are healthy enough to go get the water.
12 | In what ways do you perceive water as a global challenge?
I think water is one of the most important challenges to focus on in today’s society, because it is so vital to improving quality of life. With good water, people are able to live longer and contribute to the global society. I think an emphasis on Sub-Saharan Africa is important because there are a large number of people there who don’t have access to improved water and sanitation. So we wanted to go in and look at what they actually need and learn how to get people involved in these decisions, instead of just going in and telling them what they need to be doing. Water in Sub-Saharan Africa is more community-based than it is here, because a lot of women and children are going and collecting water. It’s a huge part of their everyday life, so you have to take that into account when you introduce new technologies. So community ownership is especially important because you are introducing a behavioral change. Bringing in these new technologies isn’t just going to change their water quality, it’s going to change the number of hours they’re collecting water, and the taste of the water, and many other aspects that you wouldn’t even think about here.
13 | How important is it to provide women with opportunities to lead projects like this?
It’s great that the University of Illinois provides opportunities like this for women, just because in the past engineering has been a male-dominated field, and it’s important to have women’s perspectives. I think it’s especially important for women to play leadership roles in water projects, both for students and for the communities, because women do play a primary role in raising the family and collecting the water. I think giving women a leadership role gives them more of an ownership of the system, and shows that women can do a lot of things!
14 | What are the next steps for this initiative?
Right now we are in the phase of looking at a lot of research for the design process, but I think the next step would be to look at how these designs actually work in the field and how they would affect the people in the communities. We also want to figure out how to make a business model and improve the lives and the economy of the people we are helping.
15 | What does graduating as an engineer from Illinois mean to you?
I think the best part about graduating from Illinois with a degree in engineering is the fact that I know I can go out and do anything. They teach us how to be engineers, but they also teach us how to write, how to communicate with other people, and provide opportunities to work with other disciplines, which I think is unique to Illinois. I think that the collaboration and ability to work with other people is one of the most important things I’ll take away from my education.
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