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Humanitarian Engineering with Shakira Hobbs

September 09, 2019

This fall, the Department of Civil Engineering offered a new class CE 599: Introduction to Humanitarian Engineering. The course is taught by first-year assistant professor Shakira Hobbs. Department chair Reg Souleyrette says she’s a perfect match for the new course. 

By Kel Hahn

“Our department has a longstanding tradition of individual faculty members and students engaged in humanitarian engineering, but until now no one who fully specialized in that area," says Souleyrette. "Dr. Hobbs brings world-class education and experience in the science of humanitarian engineering. It’s fitting that she is developing and teaching our first dedicated course in this area, and we are excited for the students and teams under her leadership.”

Hobbs joined the Department of Civil Engineering faculty in February, and she has already published three peer-reviewed journal articles in just six months. Prior to arriving, she spent two years as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Virginia. She earned her Ph.D. in civil engineering from Clemson University in 2017 and a master’s degree in engineering with an emphasis in environmental engineering from Arizona State University in 2014.

In this Q&A, Hobbs explains how humanitarian engineering is “engineering with the world in mind,” and how her own research within the food-water-energy nexus incorporates several disciplines within engineering, as well as the social sciences.
Your research works within the food-energy-water nexus. Can you describe what problems you’re trying to solve.

I look at ways to convert organic wastes, more specifically bioplastics and food waste, to energy. On the international side, I convert that food waste to energy for cooking fuel in a developing community in Belize. I also look at how agricultural runoff containing the herbicide glyphosate impacts human health.

But I should back up. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineers came up with 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering. The biggest thing we’re finding out about these initiatives is that we can no longer solve real-world problems in silos. We can't say, “This is environmental engineering,” or “I work on corrosion.” That kind of thinking doesn’t lead to collaborative solutions. So, while I work within the food-energy-water nexus, what we're finding is that food, energy and water are all connected and there are unique issues involved in each one of those.

In general, the engineering profession is dedicated to helping and serving people. What’s unique about humanitarian engineering?

Humanitarian engineering involves looking at technology for marginalized communities. So often, we’re engineering solutions for communities that have access to resources, such as capital to pay for expensive technologies. Well, most of the world cannot afford these technologies. Nearly half of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, so we have energy, food and water scarcities. So, with humanitarian engineering, we're engineering with the world in mind.

What is the key to doing humanitarian engineering well?

The biggest thing in humanitarian engineering is that we need to be able to communicate our research to the community effectively. We need to be able to understand the community’s needs and be willing to co-create solutions together. That’s the biggest thing we’re exploring in my Introduction to Humanitarian Engineering class. 

What is your own experience with humanitarian engineering?

I have a long history with the Sittee River village in Belize. I studied tropical ecology there as an undergraduate in 2012, and it was a wonderful experience. I became really close with some of the community members, and we became Facebook friends once I came back to the States. When they saw I was going to graduate school and pursuing a degree in engineering mainly focused on sustainability, they said they would love for us to come back and work with them on a project. A colleague and I were NSF-IGERT fellows, so we wrote a proposal and were awarded funding to go back to Belize.

We started with doing surveys to understand their needs. What we came upon was that waste management was an issue. With my background in anaerobic digestion, we thought that was a possible area for a project. So, we built this anaerobic digestion prototype out of cement. The whole idea is to convert the organic waste into energy. How that works is there are natural microbes that live in an oxygen-free environment. They eat the organic material and produce biogas and biosolids. We harvest the biogas for cooking fuel, and the biosolids as fertilizer. So that's how that started.

What’s developed since then?

While we were there, we also noticed some other social things. The team that went down there consisted of black women, and we all thought, “Wow, this is the first time where we feel really empowered to do our jobs as engineers. We feel like we're given the tools that we need to succeed.” The number of Black undergraduate women who are getting engineering degrees are declining. Too often, they're not in a supportive environment. So, this was the first time that we felt like we could really practice as engineers in a community where we were given what we needed.

Then we started to see little girls coming up to us, so we brought them onto the team as well. They helped us work on this anaerobic digester. After a while, community members asked us what we call ourselves. We hadn’t thought about it, but then we realized we could continue to provide this as an opportunity for everyone to be able to work on sustainability projects. We settled upon the name BioGals. “Gals” is a Kriol word for “girls.”

Are you always working on an engineering project when you visit Belize?

Not always. I went twice in 2017. The first time was to work on a project, but the second time came from something I experienced after returning. I was giving talks about the trip, and a common question that kept coming up was, “How do you know that your American nationality wasn't playing a role in how they were accepting you?” I thought, “That's a really good question. Let me go back down and assess that.” So, during my postdoc at the University of Virginia, I combined engineering with behavioral science. I used a tool called the stereotype content model, and we looked at ways to measure warmth, competency, perceived empathy, and the likelihood of the community adopting the technology.

The paper came out this year. The results we published showed that our identity as Black women played a role in the community in adopting the technology. Although we aren't from that area, there are similarities that we share--one being the makeup of the community. They are Creole, which is of British and African descent. Like African-Americans, they were brought over through slave trade. Marginalized communities know what it's like to not be treated equally, to not have equitable things available to them. So, we share that. 

Because we share similarities, we were able to understand more, and they were more likely to tell us things. Yes, our nationality played a part, but there were many factors. When you look at us as black women working in environmental engineering, we have all these different identities. We’re environmental engineers, we’re black and we’re women. And because we have these different identities, we’re able to connect with people who share some of these identities as well. That’s what we were able to show in that study.

Shakira Hobbs and her graduate students.
Shakira Hobbs and her graduate students.

It sounds like you’re doing textbook engineering, but also touching areas not typically associated with engineering.

I'm an engineer first, so I’m still going to make novel discoveries via experimental, field and modeling work. I first lead with the engineering, but then when it comes to pioneering or designing and working with the community to actually make the technology applicable, that's when humanitarian engineering comes in.

I think we're starting to realize that we're going to have to utilize more disciplines to address these complex problems. However, there is a prejudice that human aspects such as social justice, equity, and equality have to be siloed from engineering and that when concepts like parity are coupled with engineering, it’s no longer considered “hard” science. This hinders the field of engineering and does not promote diverse and inclusive environments. Inclusive environments promote competitive perspectives that are essential to addressing complex global issues such as potable drinking water, renewable energy and sustainable waste management strategies. That I was able to publish the results of the stereotype content model in engineering journals is an important step forward. 

It’s really important that when we start thinking about solving problems, we ask, “Who are we solving them for? Who is going to be able to have access? Does it have some type of social justice or equality component to it?” Those are things that really matter to me--who gets the benefit of these resources.