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June 14, 2024

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Update 2020/1/22 Water Technology


By Suzanne Forcese

Dr. Ania Ulrich, PhD, PEng, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Associate Dean (Outreach) considers herself an engineering unicorn. However, it is her unique ground breaking approach that is bringing unprecedented and much needed change to Engineering in the University of Alberta.

“I work on groundwater contamination issues,” Dr. Ulrich told WaterToday in a riveting conversation. “And I always find it interesting the response I get – ‘Is there any work for you?’ – Canadians just don’t get it. Not only Canadians but people from all around the world think we are a mecca for clean water. Just look at the Drinking Water Advisories. (watertoday.ca/map-graphic.asp) And it is the First Nations that are impacted the most.”

Dr. Ulrich, who grew up in a family of environmental conservation professionals once believed everyone thought about water “our most valuable resource” in the same way she did. “I learned how engineers help people through brilliant, technological advances, but as my career progressed I noticed sometimes engineers put such emphasis on those technological advances that we forget people and places matter. Compassion really has a role in engineering – if you understand what people are going through then the power is in your hands to create thoughtful and considerate solutions to problems. That is the foundation of Engineering with Decency.”

While a student herself Dr. Ulrich had the opportunity to be involved in a study of a small bedroom community of Boston, Massachusetts. The idyllic town of Woburn was plagued with bad smelling and foul-tasting water on Pine Street. Even though residents complained they were assured and reassured by the city engineer over a period of three years that the water was good. It wasn’t. A cluster of childhood leukemia cases popped up on Pine Street resulting in 7 deaths.

Residents hired a lawyer to uncover the truth. Several companies had contaminated the groundwater and 2 drinking water wells that service Pine Street. The cleanup cost $68 million. “But the cost in children’s lives – I always thought if that engineer gave more value to what the people were saying and maybe didn’t trust the technology then maybe he could have made a difference.”

“I’ve carried that with me ever since. It is why I work on groundwater.”

Dr. Ulrich has worked on developing biological remediation techniques for contaminated soil and groundwater. Her work has dealt with contaminated sites in the U.S., Canada, and Europe; Alberta’s oil sands and their water management practices; and Indigenous communities and their relationship to water.

“Here in Alberta we are dealing with an orphan well legacy from mining companies that have either gone bankrupt or can’t afford to pay for the contamination cleanup.” The responsibility has fallen on the provincial government. “But it’s challenging because we have the technology but not the finances.”

“I use Nature’s inspiration,” Dr. Ulrich continues. “It seems we often try to solve a problem, but the solutions come with secondary and tertiary problems. That happens when we use chemicals to clean water. Given a chance, Nature can solve a problem without creating additional problems.”

The natural solution Dr. Ulrich uses – microorganisms. “I find the specific microorganisms that can live on the carcinogens and toxins in contaminated water. When they finish the breakdown of contaminants they die off.”

Dr. Ulrich’s focus is on hydrocarbons and DNA technology to see what organisms are present in a contaminated site. “We try to stimulate their growth. At a certain threshold the microorganisms take over and do the clean-up. If none are present to begin with, we bring them in.” “Most contaminants move into anaerobic conditions. I am constantly drilling and putting soil cores into our anaerobic chambers in the lab to monitor the contaminants and microorganism activity under many different conditions.”

Dr.Ulrich’s success with the model is also affordable and yet there is a reluctance in Canada to move forward with the procedure on orphan wells although it has been a common practice in the U.S. for years. “It seems that ever since Walkerton there has been a paradigm of fear surrounding the word ‘bacteria’. But there are good bacteria too.”

What fuels Dr. Ulrich’s passion for Canada’s groundwater is the knowledge that “the flow of our water is predominately north. The least amount of water is where our population is most dense. We’ve had drought years in Alberta. Farmers are using our ground water now where they used to rely on surface water.”

“I am here to blow up paradigms,” Dr. Ulrich states. “Most people think that engineers only build bridges.”

WaterToday discovered Dr. Ulrich is building a bridge of a different dimension. Since her appointment as Associate Dean of Outreach in 2017, Dr. Ulrich has focused on supporting diversity and inclusivity among student and faculty members.

Her work and mentorship took on a significant aha moment in 2018 when she had two of her students live in a remote First Nations community. “They thought it was a little weird at first, but they soon began to love it and the community fell in love with them, inviting them to participate in several events and ceremonies.”

The students realized that the checks and balances in place for the community were failing them. The water was terrible. But the biggest lesson came from an understanding gained from Traditional Knowledge – ‘Water has a conscience and is a living being’.

“That rocked these students to the core. And they finally got it. If we really thought that water is alive, and a giver of life then how would we treat it? It wouldn’t be a commodity. We wouldn’t contaminate it and then dump chemicals in it to make it fresh and potable again.”

The experience completely changed the students as engineers, so much so that Dr. Ulrich and her team have included the internship experience in the Engage North organization at the U of A that works with community-based organizations to develop projects suitable for a four-month placement.

“It becomes a very emotional experience for the students and I also provide an Engineering Wellness venue for them. They can go into what I call ‘privilege crisis’. There is a gap in cultures. Our students have been born into a world of privilege and living in these communities presents them with a different structure. I coach them in how to hold space for their host community and to learn and co-create solutions.” “I really love working with students. It is such a key time in their lives, figuring out who they really are. Experiences like these really challenge and define them.”

Dr. Ulrich also runs the Discovery program in schools “to broaden and challenge K-12 students on Engineering.” The passion that has brought her thus far is gaining steam, “My dream is to help mentor other universities across Canada and around the world, to connect Engineering with social-emotional intelligence.”

Dr. Ania Ulrich
Dr. Ania Ulrich was presented with the Women’s Initiative Leadership Award in 2019. The award recognizes individuals who “exemplify the qualities of service, vision, and commitment to improving the realities of many.”


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