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Engineering tips for the next generation of leaders

Professor in Environmental Engineering, Julia Lamborn, gives advice on teaching and how keeping to the basics helps you come out on top. Miri Schroeter writes.

Julia Lamborn teaches environmental engineering and the need to keep a strong human element at the forefront of all work. While there are many technical aspects to be learned in waste management, construction, modelling and all other sectors within engineering, she emphasises one tried and tested skill that remains equally as important – communication.

In a world where people are engaged with technology almost 24/7, some skills are pushed to the back, but Lamborn said communication is something she teaches all of her undergraduate engineering students, so they become well placed to deal with real-life situations.

“You need to really communicate well with people,” she said. Many projects affect the entire community so conversations with the public are important, said Lamborn. “If
a company is creating a new waste facility, for example, there needs to be a lot of community engagement. Often it’s these sort of facilities that everyone needs.”

Steps to success

With decades of experience in environmental engineering, both from an industry and academic perspective, Lamborn is well placed to give students a real insight into what they can expect. Her expertise includes landfill degradation behaviour, landfill engineering, waste management and environmental impact assessment.

Lamborn is a civil, chemical and environmental engineer. She received a Bachelor’s of Civil Engineering, Graduate Diploma in Chemical Engineering, Master’s in Environmental Engineering and PhD in environmental engineering, from Swinburne University of Technology. Her PhD thesis was on landfill gas modelling. Lamborn was employed by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria for 10 years as the cooling tower thermal design engineer.

With a father who was a passionate engineer, Lamborn decided to follow in his footsteps along with three of her four siblings. “My father was an engineer and an academic at Melbourne University. He taught me that engineers solve real problems. That seemed to me to be something really interesting. My father showed me how fun it was,” said Lamborn.

In 1990 she began her academic career. From starting off with part- time work at Swinburne University, Lamborn now rarely sees a week where she works less than 50 to 60 hours. But she enjoys her job and plans to continue along the academic track. “I love my current role. I have the ability to really impact change, to assist staff and students in their teaching and learning.”

Lamborn, who has been recognised in her field of environmental engineering, was a finalist in the 2018 Women in Industry Awards for the Excellence in Engineering category. The award recognises an individual who has shown leadership in engineering, technological excellence and innovation. In 2008, Lamborn won Swinburne University’s Vice Chancellor’s Sustainability award and in 2007 she won the Swinburne University’s Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Award.

Advice for future engineers

When Lamborn was studying in the 1970s she was an active member
of committees and she said that is still a valuable way to get ahead. “I first started being on committees at Engineers Australia when I was a student because I had a really good mentor who said this is a good way to make connections. It opened so many doors to so many opportunities,” said Lamborn.

She was one of two elected Engineers Australia representatives on the International Engineering Alliance from 2014-2017, she is currently a member of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education, the International Waste Working Group, the Waste Management Association of Australia and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, to name a few.

Working in a sector that is forever changing, this again highlights the importance of communication and engagement, she said. “There’s always new challenges that come along.

It’s about learning how to tackle a bunch of problems that don’t even exist yet. We have to give students a strong grounding in fundamentals and real orientation so they can apply that to situations that haven’t happened yet.”

People also need to learn to approach waste management and environmental changes from a long- term perspective and engineers should be able to help convey the importance of this, she said. People often think short-term as many election promises are made within short time frames, said Lamborn. “It’s actually a much longer horizon,” she said.

Public engagement is vital when undergoing projects for the community. Engineering students must learn how to communicate well, Lamborn explains.

“Often what I’ll do is use case studies. I give them a lot of examples because I had 10 years in the industry before I joined the academic life.” A proposed hazardous waste facility in Nowingi, Victoria, is one case study she uses to show that students need to think long-term and consider public engagement.

“They picked a site that was sandwiched between two national parks with endangered species in them and it was too far from the waste generators. You start to step the students through what the things are that they are trying to solve and how to go about dealing with something like this,” said Lamborn.

“It’s about critical thinking, but also about students needing to understand it doesn’t matter how technically good your design is, as there are other aspects that have to come into play such as community engagement.

“That’s something that students find hard to understand. It’s not just about making a product. They often don’t see that as important when they are undergraduates,” said Lamborn.

Lamborn’s teaching reaches far beyond Australia as she travels several times a year to teach other engineers about environment, waste management and engineering education. She travelled to France in early October for work and she runs training courses with the Sri Lanka Institution of Engineers.

There are so many options for students coming out with an environmentally focused engineering degree, she said. The options include improving laws and regulations, working in design within the construction sector or on landfills, and coordinating the activities of specialist groups such as biologists or ecologists.

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