International Women's Day was celebrated on Sunday the 8th of March 2020. International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women, who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.

To celebrate this and spotlight the fantastic work of the women within our network and in STEM more generally, IWA Publishing spoke to Rita Henderson - Editor-In-Chief of our H2Open Journal - about her career path and being an Editor-In-Chief.

You can read all about Rita's journey below. 

My Career Path - Rita Henderson

I started my career in STEM in a beautiful part of the Scottish countryside, a small town that sits close to the beach overlooking the Isle of Arran. I think it was my childhood of bike riding and camping around this stunning location that inspired my passion in the environment. I had a fantastic geography teacher who had us counting cars, examining rock formations and measuring water flow. While I wasn’t sure what my ultimate career would be, I knew that I wanted it to relate to the preservation of the environment.

I decided to embark on a chemistry degree at the University of Edinburgh; I felt that a science degree was a strong foundation for many careers, and I knew that at this university I could specialise in environmental chemistry. During this time, I maintained my enthusiasm for all things green and started my first graduate position at an environmental consultancy, ENVIRON. Here I enjoyed time spent in grand old libraries pouring over historical maps to identify the likelihood of contamination from long gone industries. It was my presence at on-site, contaminated land investigations, where I witnessed the extraction of oily, foul-smelling, water from under the surface, that led me to attend Cranfield University, UK, to study a Masters in Water Pollution Control Technology.

Having a genuine interest in water quality and treatment, I was excited at the prospect of working for a water utility or similar. I decided to continue at Cranfield in order to undertake a PhD in water treatment after a rather motivating pep-talk from Dr Bruce Jefferson (now Prof), who became my PhD supervisor and is now a most valued mentor. During this time, I also started to teach, taking part in both high school outreach projects and teaching laboratory exercises to the Masters students, enjoying it to the extent that I started to wonder if high-school teaching was for me. I had not considered pursuing a STEM career in academia, perhaps because of the industrial focus that prevailed at Cranfield, and perhaps because of my desire to use the skills I was developing in a very practical, impactful way; something that has not changed.

However, on completing my PhD in 2007, the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 had struck, resulting in very few job opportunities for a fresh PhD graduate. Around the same time, Australia was experiencing the Millenium Drought, with 2006 recognised as the driest year of record for many parts of the country. Here, extensive government funding was being directed to solutions that might solve their water supply issues. A chance meeting at a UK conference with Australian researcher Dr Stuart Khan (now Prof), raised my awareness of this drought and of an upcoming Research Associate position at UNSW, Australia, that I might be qualified for. All of a sudden, there was an opportunity not only to try an academic career but to move to the other side of the world – something of a game changer.

Now, 12 years on, I have moved from Research Associate at the UNSW Water Research Centre within the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering to Associate Professor in the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering. Receiving a fellowship and research grant relatively early in my academic career gave me the confidence to keep going, despite the challenges of getting a permanent position. While by no means an “easy” job, I have enjoyed and continue to thrive on the variety and challenge that my career brings; from teaching large classes to Honours students, mentoring PhD researchers, working with industry to ensure my research has impact, writing journal articles and research proposals, the opportunity to travel, and contributing to the operation of a higher education institution. Outside of UNSW, I am now Editor-in-Chief for IWA’s H2Open Journal, an open-access publication, an achievement that I am particularly proud of as this publication assists in the dissemination of water-related knowledge to both the research community and society. I was given this role after spending time as an Editor for another IWA journal, for which I was nominated by a former Editor – I have found networks to be very important!

I attribute in part my motivation and accomplishments in my academic career to mentorship and sponsorship from Profs Richard Stuetz, Bruce Jefferson and others. I believe that having a good mentor is a critical component for success in this competitive industry. One career highlight of mine was therefore receiving the Australian Water Association’s NSW Kamal Fernando Mentoring Award in 2016. Watching my former students achieve their own career aspirations in the water industry and academia is an incredibly rewarding experience. Recently, I have had the honour of attending AWA gala nights where former students have taken the NSW YWP Award and the National Student Award. I look forward to seeing what the next generation will achieve amidst the challenges the future will bring.



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