Witmer receives Illinois International Graduate Achievement Award
CEE at Illinois alumna — and current PhD student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE at Illinois) — Ann-Perry Witmer (BS 02, MS 16) has received the Illinois International Graduate Achievement Award. The award recognizes an Illinois graduate student "whose innovative and sustained international research or public service abroad has had the greatest impact (or has the greatest potential impact) on the University, larger community, or internationally."
Witmer, who also holds undergraduate degrees in journalism and art history, began her career as a newspaper journalist. A decision to change gears and explore other professional options led to classes at a community college, where she discovered a love for mathematics and science. This new interest eventually brought her to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a bachelor's degree.
After graduation, she began work as a water supply engineer for a consulting firm in Wisconsin. But it was while working with the Wisconsin chapter of the American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) charity, helping poor international communities develop safe water supplies, that her path in engineering became more focused. Her experiences with the AWWA charity and, later, an organization she helped establish with similar goals, led her to conclude that finding durable and sustainable solutions for developing areas requires more than technology and traditional engineering techniques. Rather, she believes that successful projects require consideration and incorporation of the knowledge, values, beliefs and practices of the communities involved even if those ideas don’t align with traditional engineering solutions. She also believes that engineers must be aware of how their own attitudes and motivations affect their ability to work successfully with developing communities.
The College of Engineering engaged Witmer to teach a course (ENG 398/598, the Honduras Water Project) about what she had learned while working with developing communities. She also began work towards her master's degree in civil engineering, which she earned in 2016. Now a doctoral candidate in ABE at Illinois, her research group seeks to understand how non-engineering influences impact the success or failure of a project in the developing world, and how to incorporate those influences into engineering solutions tailored to fit the specific conditions and needs of the client/community. Witmer said she will be visiting three or four developing countries in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa this summer, gathering information about non-engineering conditions that end up determining whether an engineered infrastructure will work or not, and looking at existing systems to see how they’ve been adapted and used – or not used – by their owners in the communities.
Witmer is excited that her work has been recognized with the Illinois International Graduate Achievement Award.
“It’s sort of mind-blowing to receive this recognition from the University,” Witmer said. “I’m definitely doing work that is on the wild frontier of engineering, and it’s a challenge to gain traction when you’re advocating the notion that engineering design has to meld sociopolitical understanding right into the technical considerations. It’s easy to dismiss this type of engineering as 'soft,' a term I really hate. But I find that the hardest, and the most technical, engineering, is the engineering done in the context of the user’s needs and constraints. So being recognized for my work gives me an opportunity to keep pushing this multi-disciplinary, contextual concept forward, and I’m deeply grateful to the University for providing that recognition.”
Witmer, along with other International Achievement Award winners, will be honored at a banquet at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center on Thursday, April 13, 2017.
At top: students in Ann-Perry Witmer’s Honduras Water Project class evaluate a potential drinking water source proposed by El Tablon village leaders while visiting Honduras, last January. One foundation of the experience is to work hand-in-hand with the community to identify engineering solutions that align with local needs, values and conditions.