International Women in Engineering Day

Nature is marking International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June by profiling two female engineers who are role models for the Liverpool Women in Science & Engineering (LiVWiSE) initiative, based at the University of Liverpool, UK. The accompanying profile of automotive engineer Imogen Howarth can be found here.

Esraa Tarawneh, a water resercher in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Mutah University, Jordan, describes how growing up in Jordan made her passionate about research into hydrological extremes, flash floods and the impacts of climate change on water resources.

How did your love of engineering begin?

As a child, I liked to solve things. With a problem you make a plan, break the problem down into different aspects and try to solve each part on its own. Then you assemble the parts back together. This is what I enjoyed. Everyone around me said, “She’s an engineer.”

The environment in our home was all ‘study, study, study’. I am the second of ten siblings and all of us are either medical doctors, engineers, pharmacists or computer specialists, bar one, a judge. Three of the six daughters are engineers — two civil engineers and an electrical power engineer.

What does your research involve?

I work on hydrological and analytical modelling, providing and developing scenarios of what can happen, and I predict change in water patterns. I also study how we can improve ways of harvesting water and managing floods.

I went into hydrology to provide tangible solutions. Jordan is one of the most water-poor countries; there is a huge shortage. The severe water scarcity threshold, as defined by the United Nations children’s charity UNICEF, is 500 cubic metres of renewable water resources per person per year, but in Jordan we have less than 100 cubic metres per person per year. And it can actually be way below that — it varies from place to place. Often, we have just 2 cubic metres a week, sometimes over 2 weeks, per family.

How did your career in engineering begin?

In 1999, I started my undergraduate degree in civil engineering at Mutah University. It covered highway engineering, roads, bridges, construction, everything.

But I always wanted to specialize in water, so after graduating I registered for a new master’s degree there, in water and environmental engineering. My thesis was on water and sediment yield for the Wala Dam catchment area located just to the south of Amman.

I then spent four years at the Jordanian Ministry of Public Works and Housing before gaining a scholarship, in 2012, from Mutah University. It was to study at the University of Liverpool, UK, for a PhD in water and environmental engineering.

I used modelling for various scenarios, including the feasibility of increasing the height of the Wala Dam for sustainable land and water management in an environment for which we do not have abundant data. I am very grateful for that chance to come to a world-class university such as Liverpool, which would never have happened without Mutah’s support.

When I returned to Mutah University in 2018, I was the only woman with a PhD in a department of around 20; the only other woman was an architect. Now there are seven women with PhDs. That’s a positive move.

Esraa Tarawneh stands with equipment and tools nearby for installing a water-monitoring device.

Esraa Tarawneh with a water-quality measurement device.Credit: Esraa Radi Tarawneh

As a woman, were you unusual among your peers in Jordan, in wanting to be an engineer?

In Jordan, we do not distinguish between girls and boys doing engineering, unlike in the United Kingdom, where in my experience women do not want to do engineering as much as men do. But my youngest sister, the power engineer, has had difficulty in getting a job since she completed her studies at Mutah — the companies in Jordan seem to want men.

What have been the main challenges or barriers in your career?

Throughout my time as a university professor, I have faced a range of challenges including balancing the heavy teaching load while also striving to devote decent time to research. This requires some innovative solutions to maximize productivity and manage priorities.

And I have faced the same challenges that affect women generally: stereotypes, a lack of female role models and unconscious biases. You have to find your own way and support yourself, which I have taken as an opportunity to improve, to find wider networks and collaborate with people from around the world. Studying in the United Kingdom gave me the confidence to seek professional development opportunities in countries including the United States, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, with financial support from international funding schemes.

What does successful collaboration look like for you?

When I came back to Jordan in 2018, I collaborated with my PhD supervisor on a joint project to link UK experts with peers in Jordan to work on sustainable catchment management and water security, which was implemented the following year. It was supported by the Newton Fund, which is managed by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and which builds research and innovation partnerships with countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

We were able to use those links after a tragic, fatal event in October 2018, when a school bus was washed away in a flash flood near the Dead Sea. It was thought that in these very arid or semi-arid regions and with a tough environment and harsh topography, nothing could be done to prevent such incidents. But we can’t just stand there and say that nothing can be done.

I wanted to predict the floods and propose scenarios for how to manage or mitigate them, using hydrological modelling. I started looking into that, trying to collect resources to reconstruct these floods and make data available to other researchers as well, to learn lessons. At one point we were stuck, so we called for a collaboration with Sheffield Hallam and Aberystwyth universities in the United Kingdom, to secure funds to continue. This led to an 18-month project with UK representatives carrying out fieldwork in Jordan, which contributed to developing greater awareness of and improved resilience to flood events in the region.

How would you encourage women to study engineering?

Look at the problems around us, for instance, climate change. It’s not the role of only men to work in these fields and contribute to mitigating the impact. We all have this responsibility, so, we must all share our knowledge and contribute.

Women are powerful enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with men — they are not limited to humanitarian work, they can be astronauts or anything. We don’t want to be left behind while men are working on artificial intelligence in engineering, science and mathematics, and solving problems in the world.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Believe in yourself and look for opportunities. Also, this might sound weird, but stop looking for perfection — 100% perfect things do not exist in life. Perfectionism can make you get stuck at some point and cause you to underestimate your work. My PhD supervisor, Jonathan Bridge, gave me this advice, saying that you can contribute to solving a problem if you do the best you can.

What’s been the best advice you have had?

My PhD was tough, owing to the lack of data and the fact that the project was in a remote place in Jordan. At one point I was really suffering, and Jonathan said, “As long as you succeed in this, you will be really strong-boned and nothing in life can break you easily.” That was really inspiring. I thought that I was the only one struggling and he told me, “A PhD is not meant to be easy because you’re contributing to knowledge and doing something that no one else has done before.” I feel I’m really strong-boned, and I really would like to thank him for that. I appreciate what he’s done for me.

What does being a role model for the LivWiSE programme involve, and why did you agree to be one?

Liverpool was a very supportive environment that sparked many of my current achievements, and I want to give back. My LivWiSE programme role is to actively engage with students and aspiring prospective engineers to share my experiences, knowledge and insights, and participate in mentoring programmes.

If I’m experienced and skilful, but everyone around me is not having similar opportunities, then I cannot do much with my skills. So I try my best to contribute to building their capacity.