The war on waste

March 11, 2020

Karen Rouse leads a national effort to take valuable water research from university science to industry and end users.

Karen Rouse leads a national effort to take valuable water research from university science to industry and end users

With a career spanning 20 years in the water sector, Karen Rouse is well placed to provide leadership in her role as CEO of Water Research Australia (Water RA). She serves on the Board of the Global Water Research Coalition and Water Industry Alliance, and led the CSIRO urban water research program looking at positive environmental outcomes for wastewater treatment.

A native Brit, Rouse worked as a geologist in the energy and construction sectors in Australia before completing her Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide. The interdisciplinary nature of the course brought a seismic shift in her career.

“The course I studied had science subjects such as conservation, biology and freshwater ecology, but it also included environmental economics, law and a synthesis subject,” she says. “That has enabled me to see how science gets into policy and practice, and to understand the systems that go around it.”

Water RA transitioned from a Cooperative Research Centre with university partners 10 years ago to being fully industry funded today, coordinating collaborative research between universities to tackle water challenges. “Our members are roughly half universities and half industry, including water utilities, health regulators, consultants and a few small niche companies,” says Rouse. “We call them our big team.”

A major challenge is to work out how to reuse water regardless of where it comes from, whether that be stormwater or treated wastewater, to treat it appropriately and then communicate that to the community. “In towns in western New South Wales where they’re running out of water, we are making sure people in leadership have access to accurate and evidence-based information with which to act,” she says.

Water RA also delivers an acclaimed research leadership program that offers industry sponsorship to Honours, Master’s and PhD students, to make them ready for careers in the water sector. “Our success is a 95% rate of employment within the sector when they finish,” says Rouse.

Students receive industry mentorship, attend leading industry conferences, and importantly, an ongoing program aimed at maintaining a lifelong research mindset.

“It’s a risk as a scientist working in industry to become ‘frozen’ in time if you don’t continue to pursue new knowledge and actively keep up with your discipline. That’s where universities play a crucially important role.”

Brendan Fitzpatrick

PATH

>> Bachelor of Science (Hons), University of Exeter 

>> Master of Environmental Studies at the University of Adelaide

>> Senior Environmental Assessment Officer, SA Planning 

>> Principal Strategist, Environment and Sustainability, SA Water

>> Theme Leader, Water for a Healthy Country Flagship, CSIRO

>> Manager, Source Water and Environment Research, SA Water

>> CEO, Water Research Australia

This article appears in Australian University Science issue 2.

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