Embracing opportunity

This article first appeared in the November/December 2022 edition of Water.

With the boom in water infrastructure work and the ongoing skills shortage, it makes sense for companies to recruit engineers and scientists from around the globe. Silvia Vlad is one of those new immigrants, working in water and learning to call New Zealand home. By Mary Searle Bell.

Silvia hails from Canada but she’s actually Romanian born, emigrating to Toronto with her family as a six year old. Perhaps that is why, now in her 30s, she had no fear in moving around the world once again.

And perhaps, along with an inclination to travel, she also inherited a love of engineering.

“My parents are both engineers by training, and the sciences have always been prized in my family,” she says.

“My mother has a master’s degree in thermodynamics, but is now working in finance, and my father has a PhD in robotics, although he too has moved into finance, working in the technology side of a bank.

“As I child, I thought I’d like to be a doctor – I wanted to help people and was interested in public health. However, I took a biology class and quickly realised my aptitudes might be more inclined to engineering.”

While she was at junior high, Lake Erie, just 125 kilometres south of Toronto, was battling a blue-green algae problem. This came after Lake Erie was heralded as a paragon of environmental care following extensive work in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to clean it up after years of point-source pollution.

Point-source pollution is relatively easy to deal with. The culprits – industrial outfalls and municipal storm and sewer outfalls – were pinpointed and greatly reduced in the efforts of the 1970s and onwards. This time, however, it was diffuse pollution – predominantly fertilizers from runoff – and consequently much harder to fix, says Silvia.

“I was very interested in it, and did a project on it at school with the head of science, but then left the topic until I did my masters years later.”

Her influences, aptitudes, and interests converged, and ultimately, Silvia opted to do engineering at university following a visit from Engineers Without Borders.

“They sent a group of young professionals to my school to talk to us. They seemed vastly experienced and knowledgeable about the world. I was impressed with their ambition – and they helped make the ‘hypothetical’ idea that engineers could support public health more concrete and tangible for me.

“I soon found when I started my degree, that engineering has a very strong sense of community – perhaps as a result of students having to tackle ‘adversity’ together; we were facing more challenges than we’d ever seen and that forges friendships fast.

“I loved it.”

In her third year, Silvia spent a little over a semester in Singapore looking at how the tiny yet populous country manages its drinking water resources.

“Singapore’s NEWater Visitor Center is like an amusement park showing the way the city reuses its water. It’s fascinating.

“And public discourse on drinking water is very high – taxi drivers would chat about it, telling me ‘we drink our pee!’.

“There is a very different value system affixed to water in Singapore. While the Singaporean public are used to turning on the tap and having potable water flow on-demand, the path the water takes to the tap can be very different from the Canadian context.

“Canada, like New Zealand, has been lucky to have relatively good water quality, and relatively high water availability to support its growing population.

“Singapore is the opposite – a lot of people and not a lot of water. Their options were to either store rainfall, or buy water from neighbouring countries, or reuse it. As a result, the public has a keen understanding of the costs and value of drinking water.”

After graduating, Silvia spent a year working in a consultancy before undertaking a research project. By now, her focus on drinking water was cemented.

For her thesis she returned to the issue of cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins, specifically, the use of activated carbon to remove them from drinking water.

“It turned out to be a timely topic. In 2014, half a million people in Toledo, Ohio were left without water to drink, cook, or brush their teeth with, because of cyanotoxins from the algal blooms in Lake Erie.

“There was a surge of interest in cyanobacteria more broadly, and my thesis on the subject had me accepted to speak at various conferences which were a great start to my career.”

While she enjoyed the research and “did a lot of neat, interesting things”, she found it isolating, so on completing her master’s degree, Silvia returned to corporate life.

She joined CH2M in 2015, where she worked predominately in its water team, while dabbling in wastewater and asset management as well.

“When CH2M was acquired by Jacobs in 2017, a lot of energy was put into consolidating teams working on digital solutions; I had the opportunity to spend about 25 percent of my time working with the global digital team at that strategic level for a few years, and getting to see what was happening in other industries outside of water.

“The other 75 percent of my time was working as process engineer in the Toronto office. For the last several years, I have been working in the intersection of the digital space and drinking water, and I get excited about things like building digital twins and looking at machine learning optimisation.”

Then, earlier this year, Silvia was given the opportunity to move to Jacobs’ Auckland office.

“My boss convinced me to move out in the middle of a pandemic, sight unseen.

“But you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world going through what New Zealand’s water sector is right now – it’s an interesting time to be here, and an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the industry.

“Ontario went through significant water reforms in the wake of the Walkerton water incident. It’s fascinating to see the preamble to reforms, in contrast to the aftermath which was my experience in Canada.

“I’m also personally a big fan of working in different spaces – seeing how different places and people deal with similar problems. There’s always more than one way to fry an egg.”

Silvia has been here for about five months now, working between Jacobs’ Auckland and Christchurch offices, and says it’s been wonderful so far.

“It’s been a great experience – not only have my colleagues been incredibly welcoming, but so too has the wider water community.”

Her plan is to become really engaged in the water industry – joining various technical groups across the Pacific – and deepening her knowledge and experience in drinking water and also digital water.

“This is one beautiful thing about working for a global company, you get so much opportunity to cross borders and sectors.”

And Silvia is not the only ‘bright young thing’ Jacobs’ Auckland branch has recruited from abroad, with two more Canadians recently joining the team.

“It’s a great time to be in water and a great time to be in New Zealand.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2022 edition of Water. To read the full edition go to Issuu.