KINGSTON, R.I. – May 7, 2012 – Colleen Grinham always knew she wanted to help people. As a young girl, she set her sights on donning a white coat and becoming a medical doctor. Then she encountered blood, and her plans changed.
As she prepares to graduate with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Rhode Island, Grinham still aims to help people, but now it’s by finding better ways to provide drinking water and treat wastewater.
Getting clean water to impoverished or drought-stricken areas requires political will and a small army of engineers. Grinham wants to be on the front lines, finding cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly ways to treat wastewater.
“I never thought I would end up in my niche, but I’m glad I did,” she says. “I’ve always been putting myself out there to help others.”
“Out there” for Grinham is all around the world. She has visited 26 countries, including a year in Germany as part of the University’s International Engineering Program curriculum.
For six months, she studied at the Technical University of Braunschweig and conducted research at the Institute of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering. There, she found ways to design wastewater treatment plants that can simultaneously filter water and use the methane released to generate electricity.
After her time in Braunschweig, Grinham traveled 200 miles to the southwest to intern at a Bayer plant in Leverkusen. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with German engineers, Grinham worked to improve Bayer’s wastewater treatment systems at the company’s plants around the world.
And the German engineers listened because Grinham spoke in flawless German, technical words and all, thanks to courses she completed at URI. She complemented those lessons with Arabic classes and, crisscrossing Europe, she picked up Greek, Spanish and Italian language skills.
“My mom was a travel agent when I was young, and hearing her stories about travel got me excited about traveling, too,” said Grinham, who served as president of the URI chapter of the Society for Women Engineers. “Learning the language is a way to connect with people, and I’ve had the chance to apply that principle to engineering as well.”
She certainly has. As a URI junior she traveled to Guatemala with a group of students to design a sustainable system of converting animal wastes into usable byproducts. The biodigester they developed turned the waste into a concentrated liquid fertilizer and produced methane the residents could use for cooking.
Among the numerous awards Grinham has received for her language and engineering accomplishments was a transportation fellowship to the University of Puerto Rico, where she spent a summer training as a traffic engineer.
“I’m pretty proud to say that I’ve been an engineer in four countries,” she said. “At just 22 years old, that’s a big achievement.”
Soon she hopes to speak six languages and become an engineer who can not only solve the world’s problems, but communicate the solutions as well.
URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.