By Kristen Waksman, Jennifer Loudon and Diana Prado
Six Water Environment Federation (WEF) members traveled to Singapore in June 2018 to take part in UNLEASH, a United Nations program that brings together 1,000 students and young professionals from all over the world to participate in a global innovation lab. The purpose of UNLEASH is to transform insights into ideas for global solutions and build lasting global networks around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
We asked three of the UNLEASH 2018 talents some burning questions, and here is what they had to say:
1. How did you approach the application process?
Jennifer Loudon: While I could not have imagined there would be around 11,000 applicants, I knew that I had to make myself stand out from the crowd. My diverse scientific background allows me a unique, multi-disciplinary view of water issues. I tried to approach the essays from a practical standpoint that also illustrated my passion for protecting the water environment.
Diana Prado: My passion for water really stems from my experiences living in Lima, Peru where 3 million lack access to safe water, and 5 million lack access to improved sanitation. I was in Peru visiting my family when I wrote my essays, so it was easy to get inspiration from my surroundings. I wrote the essays from my Peruvian perspective, drawing on the water challenges I saw the country face.
Kristen Waksman: One of the things I did during the application process was to reach out to others for feedback, including two water-industry thought leaders who I have connected with through WEF. Much to my surprise, their feedback was the same: “Where is your passion?” This was eye opening, and I saw how I managed to take “me” completely out of my application; admittedly, I think it is easier for me to talk about facts and figures than myself. Three versions later and after a handful of phone calls, texts, and e-mails, my reviewers helped me find my voice, and I was able put into words my passion for water. The application ended up being an important exercise for me, allowing me to reflect on why I care about water and what I hope my water legacy will be.
2. What were some of your goals for participating in the program?
Jennifer Loudon: Honestly, I just wanted to be a sponge while I was there- soaking up every bit of new knowledge I could. Science is all about collaboration and learning from other researchers; I was about to meet 999 collaborators that I could learn from. And yeah, when someone offers you the chance to literally change the world, you say ‘yes’ (with the goal of just going with it)!
Diana Prado: I came into the program with an idea in mind, I wanted to help the people living in peri-urban slums surrounding Lima, Peru get access to safe drinking water. I was very lucky that I found a team that bought into the idea. We realized that there were many people around the world facing this same problem, and that we could use Lima as a case-study to test out our solution.
Kristen Waksman: My goals were to make the most of this unique opportunity and to meet as many people, hear their stories, and learn from them. My hope is to leverage my knowledge and experience in water and be a resource for the UNLEASH community.
3. What was your team project?
Jennifer Loudon/Kristen Waksman: Our project was to develop sustainable solutions to address the environmental and health impacts associated with lead contamination resulting from artisanal gold mining practices in rural communities in Northern Nigeria. Artisanal mining presents a very complex problem, involving poverty, health, water, and environmental challenges. Attempts to stop artisanal gold mining have been largely unsuccessful, because the practice is more lucrative than alternative livelihoods. Rather than targeting the discontinuation of artisanal gold mining, we sought to address the health impacts from the contaminated water supply by developing a simple-low cost, household treatment system to remove lead from potable water at the point of use. We recognize that technical solutions alone are not enough to create lasting change and included ongoing, on-ground support and education on the links between mining, contaminated water, and health issues and training on operating and maintaining the treatment systems.
Diana Prado: Our project was about getting cheap, readily available water filters to the people who lacked access to safe drinking water near Lima, Peru. Our project was made easier because we didn’t need to educate the users about the dangers of drinking contaminated water, because we know they are already using household methods such as boiling and bleaching their water. The issue is that these communities are disenfranchised, difficult to reach because they lack roads, and they are constantly on the move due to slum destruction. We developed a network-marketing distribution model that would hire local entrepreneurs to sell the cheap filters to the families living in these communities.
4. How did participating in UNLEASH impact you? What were your major take-aways?
Jennifer Loudon: The biggest take-away for me is that sustainability is more than just a buzzword (i.e. “sustainably sourced coffee”). It’s even more than just doing what’s best for the environment. Sustainability factors in the environmental, financial, and societal impacts of something. Making the world a better place requires not just physical/technological changes, but also an adjustment in our everyday mentality. There are a lot of technological solutions out there to problems that don’t really exist. We’re all capable of working toward a more sustainable world!
Diana Prado: UNLEASH taught me that you don’t need to be a super-human to change the world. All you need to do is have passion, and truly dedicate yourself. It taught me that it helps to be surrounded by others who also want to make a positive impact, and the importance of building those connections worldwide. The SDGs are meant to tackle the largest problems our world is facing today, and they cannot be resolved by one person. It is important that each individual around the world do their part to make a difference. All of us need to be committed to a sustainable world.
Kristen Waksman: UNLEASH facilitates the connection of 1000 people from across the world with different passions, backgrounds, languages, cultures, etc., all of whom share a commitment to a sustainable future. Being part of UNLEASH made me feel like a citizen of the world, which ties into why I find the SDGs so inspiring; it’s how universal they are. We all want to live in a world with clean water and sanitation for everyone, everywhere (SDG 6) as well as no poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), good health and well-being (SDG 3), etc. (as I continue down the list of the 17 SDGs).
5. What is your advice for someone who might be interested in applying?
Jennifer Loudon: Do it!! Even if you don’t think you’ll make it in, apply anyway. Make yourself stand out from the crowd, and you just might be surprised to learn that they like your uniqueness too.
Diana Prado: Let your passion show! Let your wildest ideas take over, those ideas that scare you, that fill you with energy. Don’t let anyone tell you that your ideas are “too big” or “too small”. Also, make sure you are tackling a real problem. One of the biggest messages I learned at UNLEASH is that before coming up with a solution, you need to make sure you thoroughly understand the problem.
Kristen Waksman: Use your resources. To be honest, if I had not reached out to others for feedback, I am not sure I would have been accepted. Utilize your contacts within WEF, and I can guarantee that they will jump at the opportunity to help (myself included). In addition, ask your family, friends, and colleagues at work and/or school to review your essays and application. The added perspective never hurts.
Jennifer Loudon is an environmental scientist with experience in wet chemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, ecotoxicology, marine biology, and protein biochemistry. Drawn to the water from a young age, Jennifer has a B.S. in Marine Sciences and a M.S. in Environmental Sciences, both from Rutgers University. She is currently laboratory manager at a water resource recovery facility in NJ and is attending Stevens Institute of Technology for her PhD in Environmental Engineering.
Diana Prado was born in Peru and came to the United States at the age of 10. She was exposed to the water challenges faced in Lima, Peru and this impacted her passion in life. Diana has a B.A. in Environmental Sustainability and Economics from George Mason University, and a M.S. in Commerce and Business Analytics from the University of Virginia.
Kristen Waksman has 4 years of experience in environmental engineering and is focused on water and wastewater. She has B.S. in Civil Engineering and a M.S. in Environmental Engineering, both from the University of South Florida. Currently working for Arcadis in Tampa, Florida, her experience includes preliminary evaluations, detailed design, construction phase services, and asset management for water and wastewater facilities, processes, and infrastructure. Ms. Waksman is actively involved in WEF and is the upcoming Vice Chair of the Municipal Resource Recovery Design Committee.
You can hear more from our WEF members who participated in UNLEASH at WEFTEC. Please stop by at the Innovation Pavilion on Monday, October 1st from 4:30 PM to 5:00 PM. For more information on UNLEASH and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, please check out unleash.org and sustainabledevelopment.un.org, respectively.
WEF Members at UNLEASH: From Left to Right, Diana Prado, Kristen Waksman, Bulbul Ahmed, Dylan Christenson, Patrick Dube, and Jennifer Loudon
Kristen, Jen, and Diana meet a sanitation hero, Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization and World Toilet Day.