Emerging leader, Dr Rita Henderson in action

Water sustainability expert and senior lecturer at the School of Chemical Engineering, Dr Rita Henderson has won the Australian Water Association (AWA) NSW Kamal Fernando Mentoring Award. 

Dr Rita Henderson

The AWA Awards were announced at the NSW Heads of Water Gala Dinner & Awards Night on Friday 11 March 2016. 

Dr Henderson is a truly deserving recipient of this award which recognises the outstanding efforts of water professional mentors.

Dr Henderson is an advocate for women in STEM and has been recognised for her leadership qualities across the Australian Science and Water Industry. In 2015 she was a contender for the 3M Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science for her world-class program of research, advocacy and outreach. 

Earlier this year Dr Henderson spent ten days in Cambodia as an academic mentor on a study tour designed to provide students with professional experience in the context of human centred design.  

Engineers without Borders (EWB) Australia led the Cambodian journey as part of their professional Humanitarian Design Summit.  EWB’s focus on Cambodia resides around the fact that huge parts of its population live within floating communities, which poses life-threatening problems for its people.   

“Cambodia has a population of 15 million people, with 80% living in rural areas. The Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River are the lifeblood for the Cambodian people and the nation’s biodiversity. But Cambodia is under threat from increasing urban migration and climate change predictions of flooding, droughts and associated energy shortages. Securing investment capital for large infrastructure activities such as wastewater treatment and coping with population pressures on food and water resources in a country where over eight million people practice open defecation and six million don’t have access to clean drinking water poses some huge challenges.” (EWB http://www.ewb.org.au/ 2016) 

The summit provided an opportunity for Dr Henderson to gain intensive exposure to issues in a developing world context. As an academic mentor she hoped to develop a deeper understanding of how the design process can be used to create positive change in disadvantaged communities, and assist the students to do the same.  She was also able to view first-hand the everyday water supply and quality challenges that an average family in rural Cambodia faces.

“The Design Summit was a unique experience. I learnt about how cultural differences can influence the suitability of technology. I also developed a much greater understanding about water challenges on a global scale,” said Dr Henderson. 

EWB believes “As water professionals working in a globalised economy, we need to consider how the decisions we make impact water, biodiversity and social capital.”

Dr Henderson is continuing her relationship with EWB by pursuing collaborative research to assist in bringing appropriate water treatment solutions to remote communities. 

Image credit: Rita Henderson (Sunset over the Mekong River, Cambodia). 

About Dr Rita Henderson

Rita leads the bioMASS lab at the UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology (UNSW). Her research specifically focuses on the design, optimisation and monitoring of solid-liquid separation processes designed for microalgae and organic matter in the context of both water treatment and biotechnology.

In Australia, where water supply is unreliable in many parts of the country, communities look to science and engineering to provide smart and innovative technologies that can address water security issues.

Rita’s research aims to optimise water treatment process performance and increase efficiency in terms of chemical and energy consumption, particularly for source water impacted by algal blooms. Her group also investigates ways in which to improve on-line monitoring of processes that are used to treat algae such that operational decisions, for example, coagulant dose, can be made more quickly. 

The impact of Rita’s research extends to alternative fuels as the same processes that are applied for separating algae in water treatment plants can be used for harvesting algae as a source of biofuel. As the separation process is one of the major costs associated with using algae as a biofuel, any improvement in efficiency will increase its potential as an economically viable fuel source. She recently attended the 5th International conference on Algal Biomass, Biofuels and Bioproducts in the USA to demonstrate how this research can be applied to separate algae in the context of harvesting for biofuel.

Rita has completed degrees from Edinburgh University (Environmental Chemistry) and Cranfield University (MSc Water Pollution Control Technology and PhD on algae treatment using a novel dissolved air flotation process) in the UK.  

Dr Rita Henderson's research profile

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