On a recent vacation back to her homeland of Brazil, environmental engineer Marina Pereira saw a torrential downpour cause serious flooding around the city of Sao Paulo. Heavy rainfall often hits Brazil’s southern region, making roads impassable and triggering landslides. “The city stopped for several hours, and I was stuck in the middle of it,” says Pereira. “Events like this make me think about how important planning and the work of environmental engineering is.”
Environmental engineers like Pereira work to develop solutions to environmental problems, whether it be water and air pollution control, waste disposal, recycling, or public health issues. The field is expected to have an employment growth of 31 percent to 2018, as companies need to increasingly comply with environmental regulations and the Obama administration’s eco-friendly stimulus plan creates jobs for green workers.
“The profession is constantly changing with incoming technologies and laws and the public’s understanding of its impacts in the surrounding environment,” says Pereira, who works in the Cambridge, Mass., office of CDM, a consulting, engineering, construction and operations firm. “There will always be demand and opportunity to improve in this field.”
Pereira says she’s always been drawn to the field of environmental sciences, starting as young as fifth grade, when she worked on a science class project about the impact of pollution, helping to design a model of a local river using blue gel as water.
“It even included outfalls blocked by pollution,” she remembers. Today, as an environmental engineer, she assists in various projects related to improvements in a municipality’s water, wastewater and storm water systems, with assignments ranging from evaluating sewer pump stations to analyzing green technologies for storm water management.
Q: What are some common misconceptions about your job?
A: Environmental engineering, like other engineering fields, is seen as highly technical career. People think that we spend all our days in front of a computer looking at formulas or designing blue prints. The reality is that a successful engineer is not only knowledgeable in the technical aspects of the career, but also a great communicator who is able to explain to clients, users and public about the impacts that projects can have in daily lives.
Q: What’s your typical day like?
A: Most days I work in the office, although I can sometimes work in the field, collecting data or evaluating the integrity of different systems. I might spend time analyzing data, handling technical issues, working in teams, and interacting with clients.
Q: What are recent interesting projects that you’ve worked on?
A: Recently I’ve been developing a facilities planning document and hydraulic model for a local community. This work will comply with EPA requirements and help protect the community from the sewer system overflows that can occur from heavy rains.
Q: How has advancing technology changed the way you work?
A: Technology is ever-changing: today with the help of drafting and surveying tools, and advanced hydraulic models, my job is performed differently compared to years ago.
Q: What is the biggest inspiration for your career?
A: The biggest inspiration has been the recent work I’ve done with Engineers Without Borders. This project was founded by a group of UMass-Amherst volunteer students – including myself – to help a community in Brazil. The goal was to develop an inexpensive, sustainable and easily replicable design to manage decentralized drinking water collection. I’ve taken two trips to the forest and volunteered countless hours, but the work is very gratifying and has enriched my life, knowing how my profession can help a needy community.