You have a long list of qualifications including a PhD in Geological Oceanography with specialisation in Sediment Transport, a graduate certificate in Marine Resource Management, as well as a Master of Science in Coastal and Oceanographic Engineering and a Bachelor of Science (Engineering) degree, with first class honours in Civil Environmental Engineering! Where did you get started in your studies?

The eternal student I was! I kept finding something else I was interested in and pursued that. I was interested in science/maths and medicine in high school. Both my parents were trained engineers and my dad was a doctor so I had some great first hand knowledge of what these careers were like. I also knew that I liked water and environmental studies, but at the end of high school still wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do for a career. My parents’ advice at the time was that engineering is a great foundation regardless of your career in the end. Engineers are known to be great managers, problem solvers and leaders and will always be in high demand. I am Canadian-born and did my Undergrad at Queen’s University. It’s there that I found Coastal Engineering within the Civil courses and found my calling. After graduation, I spent a summer in Europe working at a university in Germany and travelling around on weekends before moving to Florida to pursue a Masters in Coastal Engineering. While my research was focussed on computer modelling, I had the opportunity to assist in various field campaigns to look at rip currents and stuff which was great. I then had the opportunity to get a PhD in a complimentary field of Oceanography that opened my eyes to some bigger picture stuff like how the oceans as a whole function and climate scale processes. It also got me involved in using remote sensing for my work.

What prompted your interest in water research?

I like to say I was born with it as an Aquarian😊. I grew up around water, lakes in the summer, swimming a lot, lifeguarding, etc. I’ve just always liked water. My mom did a lot of work with Earth Day and so I also got interested in the environment and how we could help that way to make the world a better place for tomorrow. I naturally enjoyed being out in the field during my undergrad and spent summers working as a research assistant in engineered wetlands as tertiary water treatment systems.

Could you explain what a coastal engineer does?

We study and work with just about anything that involves water and the coastline. My work focuses on understanding how sandy coastlines change due to changes in wave energy arriving at the coast and developing predictive models to help better plan for the future in that regard. I’ve also done work on how waves transform over reefs during storms and am now looking at developing a project to understand how coastal structures can have multiple co-benefits with my colleagues in the Living Seawalls program. Coastal engineers also help to design ports, marinas, and coastal protection (such as seawalls).

What is most exciting about your research?

As a girl who was born in a small town in Canada, I’ve been able to travel and live all over the world as part of my job and research. I feel pretty blessed to be able to do that.

Do you get to do much hands-on work?

My work is pretty diverse. I do some field data and lab work, but most of that gets done by my students these days and I get to mentor and guide them. I currently am running a really large experiment in one of our wave flumes to look at how dunes erode during storms due to waves, higher water levels and how wet the dune is (from rain or waves hitting it). This has been so much fun and opened up lots of new ideas for me. It also has given me the opportunity to work closely with a few students, including two female undergrads over the summer as part of our Taste of Research Program who both went on to do their Honours thesis with me and these experiments. I also do a lot of computer modelling and remote sensing work so we can get more data to better understand our coastlines around the world.

You’re based in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW Sydney, what are some of the opportunities within the school for girls who have an interest in environmental engineering?

Come chat! Seriously – email me and we can chat over the phone or go get a coffee. I love to here about aspiring women. So I’m actually based most of the time at our Water Research Lab in Manly Vale on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. This is where our big water labs are.  It’s the birth place of coastal engineering in Australia. I think there are lots of opportunities within the School for girls interested in the subjects and wanting to get involved. I got my start in high school attending camps and then doing taste of research programs, which I’d highly recommend. We have run camps for girls in the past to get them introduced to more about what we do. There are some amazing women in Civil and Environmental Engineering and I’m sure we’d all welcome a chat with anyone interested. Find your passion and then try and find someone who shares that passion to join you on your journey and mentor you.

What advice would you give to high school girls with an interest in oceanography and coastal engineering?

So many opportunities! I do think having the engineering degree for my bachelors was a really smart move as my parents advised me. It was a launching pad for me, but also I knew that at the end of four years I had a job in my field. My friends have gone onto diverse careers (one designs waterslides for theme parks!), many not in engineering 10-20 years on (teachers, doctors, news anchors, working for the UN and World Economic Forum), but they got those skills that are so highly desired and transferrable from engineering.  

For more information about coastal and water engineering, visit the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the UNSW Water Research Laboratory.