Engineering is a profession that directly impacts the livelihood of people. No matter what the field or type of engineering, each and every engineer works on solving problems that impede the growth of society. One specific area of expertise that an engineer can further help people is humanitarian engineering, where workers go out and specifically complete projects that directly benefit a population. Dr. Jessica Kaminsky, newly inducted PhD at the University of Washington Seattle and long-time expert on humanitarian engineering, encouraged students to research more into these job possibilities while also offering advice on how to get started.
Dr. Kaminsky started off by examining the Eight Millennium Goals, which range from improving water systems to lowering child mortality. Some of these goals were being reached; however, water development projects need a lot of work. What is most surprising is that past water projects deteriorate and fail later on. Kaminsky noted that as, “the edge of technology changes, there is no textbook answer.” One solution to failed water projects that guest speaker Jeff Walters suggested was first initiating a project but then continuing support on that community and not simply abandoning it. Jeff Walters cofounded Second Mile Water, an organization whose mission statement is to aptly go “the second mile” of making sure healthy, clean water stays available and does not fade away.
The path to humanitarian engineering resembles the path to any satisfying career. Kaminsky broke the process into five steps: getting background information, developing necessary skills, finding specific ways to find work in development, engaging in the interactive element and getting involved. A key myth that stops most people from entering the field is the belief that there are no jobs in humanitarian engineering. Kaminsky assured people that this is certainly not the case, but qualified her statement by explaining that there are definitely drawbacks. Humanitarian engineers are paid less, have less job security, do just as much office work as other positions, and spend lots of time away from home. Despite all of these negative aspects, humanitarian engineering allows workers to deliver practical mathematical and scientific solutions straight to a community in an endangered area and genuinely help by improving the quality of life. One approach Kaminsky uses in humanitarian engineering is studying “decoupling” in which structural changes, such as building a well, happen without changing practice or culture. Ultimately a humanitarian engineer can find the source of an issue and change it for the better.