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Meet Dr. Parul Baranwal, A Water Quality Program Manager

What does Empowering Women mean to you?

For me, empowering women involves inspiring them to recognize that they don't need to alter anything about themselves to become leaders. It also means eliminating obstacles and establishing opportunities for their advancement, even if you never had those same opportunities. I am dedicated to transforming the future of work to make equal opportunities a tangible achievement, not an unattainable goal.

How did you get started working in your field?

Discovering a female engineering role model can feel like a daunting challenge, given the scarcity of female engineers in the water industry when compared to their male counterparts. Nonetheless, this realization has fueled my determination to become a thriving

environmental engineer. My passion for education was instilled in me from a young age, as neither of my parents had the chance to attend college. Despite facing financial difficulties, they supported my academic aspirations and emphasized the value of hard work and dedication. Alongside focusing on my own studies, I worked as a math and science tutor throughout my undergraduate years to support my education. Upon completing my undergraduate studies with a CGPA of 8.92, I prepared for and achieved a high score in the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE), securing an All India Rank of 297 out of a million applicants with a total percentile of 98.2%. This enabled me to pursue a graduate program in Environmental Management of Rivers and Lakes at IIT Roorkee, India. While I learned from the best faculty during my time at IIT, I also recognized that there were only three girls in my engineering classes, including myself. This realization motivated me to teach engineering education to underprivileged girls during my gap period before taking up a federal government job in India. I am proud to have inspired some girls to excel in coursework and pursue engineering as a career path. After volunteering for six months, I began working as one of the few female staffs in the regional office of the Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, India. I conducted quality inspections of state water treatment plants, collected water and sludge samples from treatment plants and lakes, and documented environmental reports. Despite being the only woman in the office, I never considered myself to be less competent than my male colleagues and received the appreciation of my managers and senior scientists. However, I yearned to learn more and contribute more positively to environmental issues, which led me to apply for a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering at the University of Toledo.

What do you love most about your job? / What are you most proud of?

Upon arriving in the US as a young girl, I rapidly comprehended the significance of taking on various types of difficulties. As an international student, I confronted numerous challenges including cultural shock, imposter syndrome, and financial struggles. Nonetheless, I refused to let these obstacles prevent me from dedicating my time and resources to conducting meaningful and influential research on cyanobacteria, which affects millions of individuals who rely on Lake Erie's drinking resources. For the past six years, my research has centered on the treatment of drinking water utilizing economical and energy-efficient biological approaches.

Aside from conducting research, I have made contributions to the community through various activities. I designed and executed interactive presentations and STEM outreach programs aimed at water engineering for high school students in several K-12 schools in Toledo. Additionally, as the President of Toastmasters International, I managed members' speeches, served as the main source of information on educational awards, speech contests, and mentorship programs. I also supervised undergraduate and graduate students for water engineering lectures and lab courses over the last three years.

Even with all these research and outreach activities, I was able to compete in a three-minute thesis (3MT) competition twice. I was honored with five competitive scholarships at the national level (American Water), state level (Ohio section-AWWA, Water Management Association of Ohio), and university level (Robert N. Whiteford Memorial, Dean Katherine Easley Wemmer). I also served as a judge for the Science Research Expo at Central Catholic High School in Toledo.

Currently, I work as a water quality program manager for County in North Carolina, where I address major water quality issues by identifying and implementing lead and copper replacement rules for underprivileged and underrepresented communities. With my experience from my PhD and my current and future work, I aspire to protect people from the negative environmental impacts of pollution while making our community water treatment plants more efficient and environmentally friendly. My goal is to improve the quality of our water resources and implement low-cost, effective, and environmentally feasible water distribution systems to achieve the sustainable development goal of WASH.

What advice would you give to omeone considering this line of work?

When it comes to the drinking water and wastewater industry, take a closer look and explore the opportunities available to you. Don't hesitate to pursue them. I always encourage the young people on my team to speak up and use their voice, as I wish I had done earlier in my own career. Even though I have always been willing to share my opinion, in the past, I used to respect the seniority of those who came before me by remaining quiet and listening to their guidance. However, I now understand that a team with diverse opinions is much stronger. Therefore, bring your creativity, communication style, point of view, and skills to tackle the issues related to the essential environmental problems of the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of ocean and freshwater systems. Ask yourself, "How can I contribute?" to discover new approaches that can help address the global crisis caused by insufficient water supplies to meet basic human needs, as well as the growing demands for water resources for human, commercial, and agricultural purposes.

Furthermore, rejection is an inevitable occurrence in the realm of improvement initiatives, even when you have solid data and facts to support your proposal. It can be particularly disheartening when you have invested significant effort and dedication. To thrive in this field, it is crucial to develop the ability to identify and cope with bias, bounce back from rejection, and persistently improve what you can control - namely, yourself. It is crucial for women to recognize the difficult yet fulfilling opportunities available to them in this field.

Anything else you would like to add?

Throughout my career, I have been lucky to have exceptional professional mentors who have taught me the value of having someone to guide, inspire, and acknowledge my efforts. I strongly believe in the concept of paying it forward, and making it a priority to empower and support others is something I will always prioritize.

Connect with Parul on LinkedIn.

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