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Career Spotlight: Environmental Health Engineer

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Amy Pickering is an environmental health engineer. She works as a research associate at Stanford University in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and at Woods Institute for the Environment. Her work combines social science, microbiology and engineering to study ways people in low-income countries can access safer water and better sanitation. People living in developing countries are often exposed to higher levels of bacteria and other germs, usually because of contaminated water and poor sanitation conditions. Pickering tries to reduce the spread of disease by coming up with low-cost and low-tech solutions that can help minimize illnesses in areas with poor water quality. She also runs research studies to test and evaluate how effective various interventions are at preventing the spread of disease. Pickering spends about 20% of her time traveling and the rest at Stanford.

Pickering did not always know she wanted to do this type of work. In high school, one of her math teachers suggested that she go into a career involving numbers.

"I knew that I loved the outdoors and the environment so I decided to do engineering, and specifically environmental engineering. And I also wanted to do something that challenged me and I thought that engineering would provide that challenge," explains Pickering.

After she graduated from college with a degree in biological and environmental engineering from Cornell University, she went on to get a master's degree in environmental engineering with an emphasis on water quality from University of California, Berkeley. There, she worked on a low-cost UV water disinfection device used in Mexico to help clean contaminated water. After graduate school, Pickering wanted to work at the intersection of science and policy, so she began a job at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C.

"I liked working at the EPA a lot, but I was in a cubicle and I quickly became restless just sitting in a cubicle all day," says Pickering.


As Pickering was growing restless with cubicle work, a tsunami struck and destroyed large parts of South Asia. She and some colleagues from graduate school decided to go to Sri Lanka to help with the tsunami relief effort. To provide residents with clean drinking water, they installed the UV water disinfection devices that they had worked on at UC Berkeley. That's when she realized she wanted to work on global water quality. She then received a Fulbright scholarship to teach English, math and photography, and completed a photo essay about how people in different parts of the world interact with water. She eventually ended up completing a Ph.D. in the Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University.

This video is featured in our Engineering Is: Cleaning Poop from Drinking Water e-book. The e-book explores the science and engineering principles behind one of Amy Pickering's projects - a device that purifies drinking water in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The e-book includes videos, interactives and media making opportunities. You can find all of our e-books at kqed.org/ebooks.

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