Dr Dani J Barrington is a Research Fellow in Water Engineering for Developing Countries at Cranfield University. She studied at The University of Western Australia and holds a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours (majoring in Environmental Engineering), a Bachelor of Science (Majoring in Chemistry and Environmental Chemistry) and a PhD in Environmental Systems Engineering. She will be speaking at the 2017 Milton Keynes Soapbox Science event about her research on water, sanitation and hygiene in developing countries.
Putting your enthusiasm to work
by Dr Dani J. Barrington
My job revolves around getting to talk, think and write about poo.
Obviously this is not what I imagined myself doing when I was a kid. I grew up next to the ocean, so “saving the whales” was high up on the agenda of what I wanted to do with my life (I even learned Japanese in high school in the hope that I would one day get to ride on a Greenpeace anti-whaling ship yelling “not in the name of science!”). I was always one of the loud kids, and known to become passionate about anything I could sink my teeth into. I was particularly good at science and maths, so I assumed that I would end up studying for a profession in that field.
At university I first studied a double degree in Environmental Engineering and Environmental Chemistry. It was there that I realised just how important the interactions between people, engineering and the environment really are. I was a founding member of The University of Western Australia Pantomime Society, so I spent the five years of my undergraduate degrees making a fool of myself on stage, being part of a team and learning to be a leader as President and Producer of several shows. Between my degrees and pantomime, I decided that what I really wanted was to be an engineer that focused on people. What reason could there possibly be for engineering if it weren’t for people? I could do the technical calculations, but what I was really interested in was how engineering designs could have a positive influence in the world. I wanted to work in improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for the health of people and our environment.
My PhD investigated wastewater treatment in rural Australian towns, and whilst refining my research and writing skills at the university, I volunteered with the Western Australian Chapter of Engineers Without Borders Australia, eventually becoming President. This culminated in a secondment to Nepal for almost a year, where I worked with remote communities to develop water safety plans for their newly built water systems and toilets. This is when I truly recognised the importance of both technical and social skills in improving the WASH situation.
A wonderful moment in my career came when I realised that my interests and ambitions meant I was unlikely to develop some crazy advanced water treatment technology, and be a Nobel-Prize winning mad-scientist. Instead I was a good engineer with other skills which I’d previously discounted as “just a bit of fun” – I was naturally enthusiastic, had high emotional intelligence, and actually enjoyed public speaking and meeting new people. All of these could be combined to help me make a useful contribution in the field of WASH!
So on returning to Australia, PhD certificate and overseas work experience in hand, I threw myself into job-hunting and grant writing where I felt I could be the best version of myself – at the intersection of WASH technologies, people and the environment. So far this has seen me working in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, India, China, Uganda, Indonesia and the Republic of South Africa. The best part of traveling for work is all of the awesome people I get to meet, both in communities and in various institutions. In September I will begin a new role as a Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at The University of Leeds. I can’t wait to start the next phase of my adventure!
My advice to young women and men is that if you’re unsure what it is you want to do with your life, don’t let yourself get trapped in the idea that you have to know when you’re a teenager. The “grown-ups” may put pressure on us to ace exams and choose our university courses wisely, but we really never know where our own skills and passions will take us. Our skills are not just those that are written on a piece of paper handed to us whilst wearing a Harry Potter-style graduation gown. Our career path is our choice, and we can combine different qualifications and interests to devise the path we think is best for us, even if that turns out with us being referred to as “The Poo Water Lady” at family gatherings.