Dr Andrew Dansie: Big world, small world

Dr Andrew Dansie - 'Twinning' for coastal monitoring in the PacificThe School of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CVEN) would like to welcome Dr Andrew Dansie as Senior Lecturer in Humanitarian Engineering, a position held jointly with the School of Chemical Engineering. Dr Dansie has been on campus since 2017, as program manager for the UNSW Global Water Institute (GWI), while also acting as an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Oxford School of Geography and the Environment. He is a busy man with a global history of good works.

Humanitarian engineering is about developing projects that address a real human need. It is not about profit, it is about building capacity and serving the disadvantaged. This is a new approach to international assistance with an emphasis on suitability, sustainability and the desires of the community it intends to serve. CVEN is lucky to have secured Dr Andrew Dansie as a leader in this field.

Raised in Port Lincoln, South Australia, a young Dr Dansie was filled with a desire to move into the wider world. “I look back now and I realise I was leaving paradise”, he says. It was this childhood immersed in nature that nurtured his love of biology and environmental science. Since his early teenage years Dansie has been fulfilling a wanderlust: “at 15, I was an exchange student in Indonesia, living with an Indonesian family and going to school with their kid. Challenging but great, a wonderful Balinese family. I was welcomed so warmly. I also learnt to share a bed!”

He became interested in languages and decided to study Indonesian, as well as science at Flinders University. Now his love of languages has been passed on to his small son, who is being taught both English and German by his parents. A citizen of the world at two.  

After completing his Bachelor of Science, Dansie set off travelling through South America and Europe. Returning to South Australia, he commenced a Masters at Adelaide University on coastal land use and erosion. “This meant I could drive around and camp on beaches.” He was awarded the Masters Medalfor outstanding research in the field of Environmental Studies.

Three years in Perth followed, working as a microbial and environmental scientist in the private sector. “My most interesting project was trying to save Australia’s rarest reptile, the western swamp tortoise. Changing rainfall patterns were becoming less synchronised with the life cycle of the tortoise. So, we looked at how we could replenish their wetlands and recreate the natural wetting and drying cycles.”

“I was then accepted into two concurrent post graduate certificate courses on managing climate change and globalisation at the United Nations University in Tokyo. 40 students from close to 40 different nations. It was my first taste of the UN.” Inspired, Andrew won a position at the UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health as a researcher in the Freshwater Ecosystems Program in Canada.

I want to develop, here at UNSW, an internationally recognised Humanitarian Engineering program that is applying appropriate and sustainable humanitarian solutions to disadvantaged communities in Australia and overseas

Dr Andrew Dansie

From Perth to Hamilton, Ontario. Here he was project director for a global synthesis of science across transboundary marine and fresh water bodies. “We were analysing US$7 billion and 20-years’ worth of investment and national government partnership by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF is the largest funder of environmental projects in the world and an organisation that works collaboratively, across borders in their International Waters portfolio. Coordinating 75 leading scientists from 6 continents in 5 different water research areas, was a fascinating project. All working together on what the science had told, and could tell us.”

Emerging challenges were identified: for instance, micro-plastic pollution, which, 10 years later, is widely acknowledged in public discourse as catastrophic and pervasive. “Which way will the planet go? Global cooperation saw the swift removal of CFCs from the market to combat ozone depletion yet carbon emissions have been much more politicised and the science removed from policy. But plastics? It’s a more tangible problem perhaps.”

“I made a lot of great connections in Canada and loved living there, working on other UN projects that took me to South East Asia and Africa.” But a PhD beckoned: Dansie was offered a Clarendon scholarship to the University of Oxford in the School of Geography and the Environment, investigating sediment and nutrient dynamics between hydrological, aeolian and oceanic systems of southern Africa. “The fieldwork was in Namibia, one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. It involved lots of camping in the open air.” From the rarefied Oxford campus to the hard, desert pavements of southern Africa. “For six months we measured air borne dust concentrations, wind strength and river valley soil moisture levels with three months of off-road driving into the upper catchments to collect sediment samples.  We went to very remote areas and were grateful for the permission of the Namibian Government to visit these areas. Hyenas chewed our equipment, lions with trackers roamed river valleys, elephants passed the tent at night. It was wonderful.”

This project would ultimately reveal that iron rich, airborne dust from Namibia’s ephemeral river valleys raised the phytoplanktonic primary production rates in one of the world’s most biologically productive regions: the Benguela Upwelling System.

Dramatically, Dansie’s Namibian adventure was cut a little short by a car accident that would shatter his shoulder blade into 15 pieces. After recovering, he completed his laboratory work; conducting biogeochemical analysis on the sediment and dust samples and using remote sensing to track dust plumes and measure the primary productivity off the coast of Namibia.

As if his life was not full enough, while still at Oxford, Dansie worked on the UNICEF-Oxford REACH global research programme that looked at the water security of poor communities in Ethiopia, Kenya and Bangladesh. He worked in the field in Ethiopia with Katrina Charles, a UNSW engineering alumna. Small world. He also joined the Board of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, preserving the Leuser Ecosystem in partnership with local communities, assisting them to diversify their income-generating activities, discouraging unsustainable land clearing.

Andrew Dansie became a father in the last year of his PhD. England was approaching Brexit. What to do now? Where to go? A position with the UNSW Global Water Institute seemed to fulfil both academic and personal ambitions. “UNSW has become a great place to be. There is some excellent research being done here, not just for research’s sake, but applicable and relevant research in a developing world context. I am standing on the shoulders of Richard Stuetz and Fiona Johnson from CVEN and Greg Leslie, Rita Henderson and Pierre LeClech from Chemical Engineering who have worked so hard to establish a Humanitarian Engineering program.”

Dr Dansie will be teaching ENGG3001 Fundamentals of Humanitarian Engineering and ENGG4102 Humanitarian Engineering Project. “Just as I love the outdoors and interacting with people on the ground, I will love getting my students out of the classroom.”

His travelling continues. He has been developing three discrete projects since arriving at UNSW: monitoring airborne particles and air quality in the Pacific; working with UNSW undergraduate students to monitor microplastics in waterways in Fiji, India, Indonesia and China; and assessing the feasibility of developing floating mangrove plantations in partnership with UNESCO.

In all of his work Dr Andrew Dansie believes in listening to local expectations: an ‘ears open mouth shut’ approach. “I want to develop, here at UNSW, an internationally recognised Humanitarian Engineering program that is applying appropriate and sustainable humanitarian solutions to disadvantaged communities in Australia and overseas. This is made achievable by the good will and collegiality that already exists here. I want to help bring Australia collaboratively into the Pacific and beyond. Exciting.”

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