In your bio on LinkedIn, it says you’ve always been fascinated by water. Do you have any memories of this of this growing up?
Many memories! My mum used to take me camping and travelling all the time as a kid and always somewhere we could swim. I think she knew I felt at home in the water. There’s something about being fully immersed that’s really relaxing and helps me feel connected to nature.
I distinctly remember camping up in Gloucester Tops, NSW, where we would swim in pure, cold waters of the Gloucester River coming down from the top of the mountains. I was in awe of how clear the water was. I think this helped me feel removed from society, comparing the water I was able to swim in up the mountains to the usual water you would see around Sydney. Rivers in general were always amazing to swim in wherever we went. I love the rapids, the chaotic flows cascading faster down these sections of the river, while the water moved at a gentle, slow pace on either side.
I’ve always loved the coast, the sea – what a wild and energetic environment. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but the concept of erosion and deposition was always interesting. There was always so much sand in the water near the shoreline, but as you went further seaward it disappeared. I now realise it’s the result of all the erosional wave energy crashing onto the beach and complex flows below the water surface at shallower depths.
Manly Dam has a lot of sentimental value for me. Mum used to take my first dog and I down there whenever we needed an escape and time to cool off. It’s one of the fondest repeated memories I have around water, and perhaps why I have such a positive association with it. Since living in the Northern Beaches for my primary school years, I’ve lived in Canberra and come back up to live in the western suburbs of Sydney. I think its wonderfully poetic that I was lucky enough to get a job back at the UNSW Water Research Lab, on Manly Dam - back at one of my spiritual water-home.
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on so far?
This is really hard to pinpoint! Everything we do at the lab is exciting. I’ll avoid being specific, as some of the more exciting things I’ve worked on might be considered confidential, but I think the most exciting thing I do at work is physical modelling. We take a real-life problem or structure, scale it down so it fits in one of our facilities, and then perform tests to assess things like stability, potential damage or take measurements for clients to make design decisions.
I personally learn by doing, so being able to watch the complex hydraulic processes happening in front of me gives me a really good understanding of the theory behind them. How many people get to go to work, build a structure and crash waves on it until it breaks? It’s a lot of fun.
What’s been the biggest lesson working in the field?
On-the-go problem solving and adaptability. Not everything goes to plan! We’ve got some excellent systems at the lab to make sure we’re considering all possible outcomes before we go into the field. The project managers (shout out to Toby Tucker and Alice Harrison) do an amazing job planning for the variety of unique fieldwork we undertake. Despite all that, things aren’t perfect in the field. Instruments stop working, tools break, paths are blocked, areas are inaccessible etc. There’s plenty of things that can’t be planned for when you’re in the field.
When you’re in the labs and something goes wrong, or something breaks, you’ve got all the resources in the world to remedy the situation. Broken tool? Pop down to Bunnings! In the field, you don’t have this luxury. The biggest lesson you learn is the importance of adaptability and how to apply practical skills and knowledge of the project to come up with a solution to the issue. You learn to become creative and fluid with your approach, and not to throw your hands up in frustration the second things don’t go to plan.
I also noticed you’re a UNSW alum, What’s your fondest memory as a student at UNSW?
My fondest memory was probably the fourth-year groundwater course fieldtrip. While my interests don’t specifically lie with groundwater, the fieldtrip was a blast. Firstly, it’s a great learning experience and one of those unique times in uni where we could practically apply the knowledge we’d learned in the classroom. Again, being someone that takes in a lot by actually doing things, it was a really good hands-on experience. On top of the learning aspect, it’s a really fun experience. Over five days, you get to bond with with your classmates and lecturers and develop lasting friendships. For me, it really helped humanise the lecturers. Another shout out, to the academic who runs the course. Martin Andersen does a great job with organising the fieldtrip. Now that I interact with him as a colleague (being based at WRL), I see how much effort he puts into making it a fantastic experience for the students.
Also, who can forget the parties at the Roundhouse? They encompass the best part of uni, which is the social aspect. If you make the effort to socialise, make friends and enjoy the freedom of being a young adult, the years you spend in university will be the best years of your life.
What advice would you give to undergraduate students who want to pursue a career in water engineering?
Dip your toes (pun intended) in every pool of water engineering you can. Enrol in a range of water engineering-based courses over your degree. Water, as a subject of study, is so interconnected. You’ll learn specifics from certain disciplines (coastal, rivers, groundwater etc.), but they’ll all build on your knowledge of hydraulics and hydrology. Also – take advantage of any fieldtrips on offer. These will give you a great sense of just how important water is, and how important it is that water engineers exist.