Water warrior

PhD in Environmental Engineering

On the world’s driest continent, the sustainability of Australia’s water resources has never been more crucial. For environmental engineer and Griffith University PhD graduate Doctor Rachelle Willis, such commitment has become a career.

As Senior Surface Facilities Engineer (Water) for Origin, Rachelle oversees water concept engineering and strategic planning for the company's Reedy Creek asset situated in Queensland’s Surat Basin, about five hours' drive west of Brisbane. Origin is the gas field operator and joint venture partner in Australia Pacific LNG, the largest producer of natural coal seam gas in eastern Australia and a major exporter of liquefied natural gas to Asia.

Rachelle says environmental engineers play a key role in projects by implementing practices to avoid or minimise the impact of development, and by developing processes for the treatment or reclamation of resources and safe disposal of wastes.

"This is a renowned factor in Griffith University’s core principles and a learnt practice. It certainly informed the content of my PhD, and has translated into my engineering career," says Rachelle.

Rachelle graduated from Griffith with a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Hons) in 2006, noting: "My degree was rigorous, comprehensive and provided a great range of learning across environmental engineering practice as it pertained to water, air, soil, waste and the natural and built environment.”

She then pursued her PhD – Domestic Water End Use Study: An Investigation of the Water Savings Attributed to Demand Management Strategies and Dual Reticulated Recycled Water Systems – through an Australian Research Council Linkage PhD candidacy.

This saw Griffith University lead a major smart metering study involving Gold Coast Water, Wide Bay Water, the Queensland Water Directorate and the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

“Completing my PhD with Griffith while placed at Gold Coast Water gave me an excellent breadth of both academic and industry experience," she says. "For example, the Gold Coast Watersaver End Use Project resulted in over 20 novel refereed publications, and assisted in the planning and design of dual supply schemes nationally and internationally.

"Support from my supervisor, Associate Professor Rodney Stewart, and my Gold Coast Water Manager, Guillermo Capati, were key to the success of this project.

"I was able to practice strategic infrastructure planning, develop quantitative and qualitative research skills, project manage smart metering study and carry out critical analysis, all of which helped when I went on to join Gold Coast Water as a Graduate Research and Planning Engineer, then Allconnex as an Infrastructure Planning Engineer.”

Having completed her PhD in 2011, Rachelle travelled across the country to become a Senior Project Manager and then Land Access Team Leader for major Western Australia firm Western Power. There she focused on asset placement for, and maintenance of, the vast South West Interconnected System electricity network.

"My courses at Griffith in project management, environmental regulation and compliance, infrastructure planning, and understanding sustainable innovations to avoid or minimise impacts on the environment, community and economy, all served me well in this role. In all fields, it is important for environmental engineers to have a place at the table to drive better outcomes," says Rachelle.

Returning to Queensland, she joined Origin in 2014 as Manager Land Access, managing relationship with landholders in Queensland and Victoria.

As her career progresses, Rachelle’s commitment to environmental sustainability remains an essential force. She is applying the same principles to other pursuits in her life. One of these is a hobby farm just outside Toowoomba, where Rachelle is putting environmental knowledge and engineering into practice by developing an organic avocado farm.

She believes her PhD broadened her strategic and critical thinking, giving her the confidence to succeed as an engineer and be bold enough to take on new challenges.

"My experience during my PhD at Griffith University and afterward has been very positive. My advice to any student considering taking on a PhD is to work closely with your supervisor, appreciate the support you are given, publish early and frequently, and most importantly, know and love your topic."

Dr Willis' Griffith PhD thesis

Domestic Water End Use Study: An Investigation of the Water Savings Attributed to Demand Management Strategies and Dual Reticulated Recycled Water Systems

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