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Building talent and networks: Water projects recruit young South American researchers

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Written by Marion Davis and Aubrey Cohen

Saturday, 05 November 2016 00:00

SEI 2016 news Young profs 6SEI's Manon von Kaenel (standing) and Angélica Moncada, a Colombian on the technical expert team, give a presentation in Chiclayo, Peru.

By engaging early-career engineers and scientists in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia – particularly women – SEI has improved gender inclusion and laid a foundation for long-term collaboration.

Water resources planning requires not only technical expertise, but also local knowledge and connections. So when the SEI-US Water Group undertakes a project, it often teams up with research institutions and consultancies based in the region of study.

When Senior Scientist Marisa Escobar began working in the Andes in 2009, she decided to go one step further. She knew that many students in environmental engineering, civil engineering and environmental science programmes used SEI’s Water Evaluation and Planning (WEAP) system for their thesis research. There were also young WEAP users in technical institutions across the region.

Escobar started hiring some of these early-career professionals to be part of her projects, in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. As a female engineer herself, she made a point of creating opportunities for women, who are typically underrepresented in technical fields and in relevant government agencies.

“We wanted to begin a ‘chain of change’ that will lead to greater gender inclusion,” Escobar says. “We identified young professionals with excellent technical skills and supported them in taking ownership of important analytical work being done in their own countries. Some of them have now been our partners for several years, over multiple projects.”

Gladis Celmi connected with SEI when Escobar and Water Group leader David Purkey helped her use WEAP for her thesis. After finishing her studies, Celmi started doing work for SEI.

“Water management in Peru is new,” Celmi says. “It is developing and improving every year. A lot of people want to work in this topic, because it’s very important.”

SEI 2016 news Young profs 3Luisa Cusguen, of Colombia, has worked with SEI since 2013.Luisa Cusguen got involved with SEI in 2013, after seeing a job announcement for work supporting climate change adaptation in Colombian watersheds. Her work included watershed modelling, teaching local participants how to use WEAP, organizing meetings and reporting on project progress.

Manon von Kaenel, an SEI research analyst, sees several benefits in this arrangement. “Our partners not only provide technical support, but also manage day-to-day interactions with stakeholders,” she says. “That helps us build much stronger relationships with stakeholders than we could have over Skype. And because we know each other well, we really work as a team.”

Escobar, who is Colombian, said social norms in South America often lead to women being relegated to more administrative aspects of projects, regardless of their skills, while men do the technical work. However, SEI has assigned highly technical tasks to its women partners. As they have successfully completed the work, they have made an impact on how stakeholders and decision-makers see women’s role in such projects.

“Now they are more confident about engaging women in technical tasks, and this has led to a critical mass of women collaborating and creating networks connected to SEI,” says Escobar.

Escobar noted that one key reason why SEI has been able to build lasting collaborations with young female researchers is that the Water Group has several women in senior and highly technical positions (indeed, five of the group’s 12 researchers are women).

The South American colleagues, in turn, have become valuable resources for younger members of the Water Group. For instance, von Kaenel has relied on them to learn about local norms and institutions. “It gives more of a purpose to what I’m doing, because I understand the context,” she says.

SEI 2016 news Young profs 4SEI's Susie Bresney (left) and Carolina Giraldo Vieira visit the site of a proposed hydropower project.Susie Bresney, who just joined the Water Group staff after doing research in Colombia with SEI as an intern, says Cusguen helped her in many crucial ways.

“Luisa has important contextual knowledge, not just about the projects, but about all the people involved, and their contributions and areas of expertise,” Bresney says. “If she can’t answer my question, she always knows where to find the answer and happily connects me with the right people.”

When Bresney travelled to Colombia last January, Cusguen found the people she needed to talk to and set up meetings. Cusguen also helped Bresney navigate Bogota, and took her out to eat.

“I think that is very important to build relationships with other people who are at similar points in their professional lives because we can learn with experience, challenges and the knowledge of our partners,” says Cusguen.

The two women found they had a lot in common. “Luisa is working through a lot of the same things I am professionally, as we are both just getting started with our careers,” Bresney says.

Von Kaenel echoes that sentiment: “There aren’t that many younger professionals in the office, so it’s nice to collaborate and communicate with them,” she says. “We’re all in our 20s. We have similar ambitions. We can teach each other different skills. It’s also good to connect at this stage in our careers. We’re working in the same field and will be for a long time to come.”

Over the summer, Celmi and another (male) SEI partner, Nilo Lima, from Bolivia, visited the U.S. to work on projects and improve their English. “Working with SEI has been the most important experience in my career,” he says. “Meeting and interacting with the SEI researchers, and learning on a daily basis from them, has helped my professional and personal life.”

SEI 2016 news Young profs 5Nilo Lima, Manon von Kaenel and Gladis Celmi celebrate the Fourth of July together in California.

As the Water Group undertakes new projects in South America, Cusguen, Celmi, Lima and other young professionals will continue to be key collaborators.

“The list of young professionals that have worked with SEI and are still part of our networks keeps growing,” says Escobar. “We are proud of their career progress and of our role improving gender balance in our projects. We are now connected to South America’s future water resource management leaders.”


Learn about the SEI Gender and Social Equity Programme »

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