Zimmermann, Karl

Karl Zimmermann was a finalist in the 2019 Three Minute Thesis competition, with his presentation, "Biological ion exchange for long-term water treatment in small and remote communities."

Research Description

There exist countless innovative drinking water treatment technologies. However, a technology is not inherently a solution, and without the community’s trust, there exists a gap between innovation and implementation. Bridging this gap requires translation from a research facility to a specific community’s context, which necessitates understanding a community’s needs, history, and culture. Yet only someone from that community understands their unique experiences. While engineers contribute technical expertise, a partnership must be formed with the end-users to understand their local context, and these partnerships are built on trust. While the literature offers a critique of ‘bottom-up’ strategies, most approach it as a social sciences challenge. Uniquely, this research adopts an engineering perspective to identify tools for technical experts to foster partnerships and support end-users in finding their safe water solutions. Inspired by Photovoice, the methodology involves participatory video, shown to “amplify community perspectives” and “inform how and in which ways emotions matter in nature-society relations”. We will create a short film using first-person video of interviews and lend cameras to participants to capture their perspectives on water and participatory design. This research aims to recommend tools and strategies to build partnerships which lead to more sustainable water solutions, which have end-user endorsement and ownership.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Through my engineering studies, I learned the technical skills of designing effective and efficient chemical engineering processes. After getting into the water treatment field, I learned that for many communities in the world, the challenges to finding safe water solutions are not from a lack of technologies, but the use of inappropriate means of finding a technology to implement. As a UBC Public Scholar, I will listen and learn from champions of successful water projects to learn how to build partnerships with stakeholders. While my engineering PhD programme is providing me a strong technical background, this project will help me to develop the community engagement skills to excel as a global leader in safe water promotion.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The UBC Public Scholars Initiative provides the opportunity to take a leap beyond your disciplinary boundaries and outside of your comfort zone. While a traditional engineering doctorate prizes technical proficiency, PSI support will allow me to visit communities and learn how to prioritize listening and learning, rather than assessing technologies; this research brings an innovative approach to bridging the innovation-implementation gap in engineering.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I am passionate about helping communities find their safe water solutions. PSI support offers me the unique opportunity to be a practitioner who can bridge the gap between engineering and social sciences. Through my PhD studies in environmental engineering, I am learning the technical skills to find and assess drinking water treatment technologies and WASH interventions. This project will allow me to develop these partnership-building skills, supporting my career in global WASH initiatives, while also showing the value of engineering doctoral scholarship to the development field. Gaining this experience at the start of my career will enable me to begin trying new ideas right away.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

This research focusses on listening and learning to discover effective strategies to foster partnerships with end-users, technical experts, local community leadership, outside water practitioners, and others involved in the process of establishing safe drinking water. By learning from end-users and champions of previous successful case studies, we will engage with the most important stakeholders. The findings will be shared with the research participants, but also with the broader Water, Sanitation and Hygiene community to share our recommendations on how to build more effective water partnerships. Most importantly, by embracing an inter-disciplinary approach to water, we aim to unite community and social partners with technical experts to collaboratively discover safe drinking water solutions.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

The United Nation’s sixth Sustainable Development Goal committed to safe water and sanitation for all, by 2030. Yet each year, 2.2 million children die from waterborne diseases such as diarrhea. This research will advance change in a sector where a 1% improvement means 7,000 fewer deaths of children under the age of five from diarrheal diseases each year. To me, that’s a scholarship worth pursuing.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

At the conclusion of my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, I had discovered the field of water treatment. I was enthralled by how relatively simple technologies from centuries ago can still be used today to make dramatic improvements to public health. I saw that becoming an innovator and leader in this field would require learning from a diverse range of cultural and academic leaders to embrace global perspectives and a truly interdisciplinary approach. I sought graduate studies as an opportunity to learn from established experts and be given the opportunity to discover where my own passions were. My Public Scholars research is a manifestation of this goal: after two years I found my interests within the water sector lie in supporting developing communities to discover their safe water solutions, and that I can approach this with a unique engineering perspective.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

The University of British Columbia is a globally respected school, which is very useful when recruiting speakers for seminars or asking to chat with global water leaders. My PhD supervisor, Dr. Madjid Mohseni has pioneered the Community Circle approach of fostering partnerships with First Nations communities to find safe water solutions. While the core of my engineering studies involves building our technical understanding of water filters, I cherish the opportunities to work with communities, to learn from Dr. Mohseni and our other partners, and to see how engineering and social sciences can combine to create sustainable drinking water solutions. The opportunity to be involved with community work through RESEAU Centre for Mobilizing innovation was unique to UBC, and an opportunity that I hold in high esteem. Of course, Vancouver as a city is also a strong component of the choice to attend UBC. Since moving here, we spend weekends on bikes, skis, in tents, on the beach, standing in a river with a fishing rod or logging miles on the Fraser River with the UBC varsity rowing team. UBC offers the perfect combination of quality of life and academic prestige.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

I knew that I wanted to study water treatment, and that falls under either Civil or Chemical Engineering. With my background in chem eng and an interest to investigate the underlying principles of the technology, I decided on chemical and biological engineering at UBC. Further, my eventual PhD supervisor runs a World-class research facility and a research project that was very interesting to me. Even better, he offered opportunities to become involved in community projects, which allows me to begin helping others even before concluding my studies at UBC.

For you, what was the best surprise about graduate life, about UBC or life in Vancouver?

Vancouver is amazingly situated such that the weather in the City is always beautiful (unless in January rain), but within two hours' drive you can be in snow for skiing in the winter. Or you can drive east to experience the breathtaking interior mountains and the Okanagan. The people and culture in Vancouver are very friendly and activity-oriented and people love to tell you about their last adventure.

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I enjoy meeting other people at conferences and to learn about other leading research that is going on around the country, and also to describe our work in promoting clean drinking water and its importance in the promotion of public health. I look forward to conferences to present our findings and meet with the other leading researchers in our field.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Obtaining contacts to find the right location to start my career. I have a specific goal of working in international development projects for the promotion of clean water. My biggest challenge at this point is to find a starting point to launch my career!

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

UBC creates an environment that encourages innovative research. We are encouraged to push boundaries and test new ideas. By taking those leaps and embracing challenging research, we are able to achieve lofty outcomes. This shows the abilities of UBC graduate students to set and achieve goals, which is very useful for future careers. Using the research as a basis, I have been encouraged to apply our findings to real-world scenarios through partnerships with rural BC communities to improve their drinking water quality. To this end, I am beginning to gain the skills and network that I will use later in my career.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

Adaptability is valuable as a graduate student. Things will not work as anticipated, and the plan will change, often with nothing you can do. You need to be able to adapt to the new situation and make use of the results you are going to get. If your experiment doesn't go as planned, you need to have a vision of the overall direction and purpose of your research so that you can adapt the plan to continue your studies in the forward direction and to achieve meaningful outcomes for the improvement of society.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

Read books (but I'm notorious for falling asleep two paragraphs in). I love adventuring in the backcountry: camping in the Coastal Mountains alpine in summer and backcountry skiing in the winter. Biking out to Steveston or Deep Cove, running the length of Pacific Spirit Park or rowing on the Fraser River with the UBC Varsity Rowing Team.

Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?

Leave your office every day. It's too easy to get caught up in your research, but the real learning happens in seminars and discussion with your colleagues. And even more, the learning happens once you head home on evenings and weekends and start living the Vancouver life on Spanish Banks beach or up the Squamish Valley highway.