Francis Heil: engineering a more sustainable future

Francis Heil followed his passion for sustainable water and environmental management from regional Victoria to the University of Melbourne and now to the UK, where he recently completed a Master of Philosophy in Engineering for Sustainable Development at Cambridge. He shares his story.

Francis and his partner outside King's CollegeFrancis and his partner outside King's College. Image: supplied.

I grew up in Mildura in the drought-stricken Murray Darling Basin, and I was always interested in water and the environment. When I finished VCE in 2006 I moved to Melbourne to study chemical engineering and science, because at that stage I knew I liked chemistry and the practical application of engineering.

Looking back now, I’d say the most impactful experience from my time at Melbourne was completing the final-year design project, where I worked with four friends to design a bioethanol production plant and evaluate its feasibility. The project was sustainability-centred, and gave me exposure to issues such as the water-energy-food nexus, challenges and opportunities with renewable energy production, and environmental and socioeconomic impact assessments. We were thrilled to receive the Jacobs Engineering prize for the project – awarded to the best Chemical Engineering design project in Australia & NZ.

I formed great friends at Melbourne who are now doing diverse and exciting things, from renewable energy, to metal manufacturing, to biomedical innovation. We always look forward to catching up and sharing news with each other.

After graduating in 2011, I started working as a process engineer at Beca, one of the largest engineering consultancies in Australasia. Working at Beca was a fantastic learning experience where I gained exposure across different industries and worked with exceptional people. I was a project engineer at Australia's largest desalination plant, and I managed engineering design and project delivery across numerous water, wastewater, and food and beverage projects.

I’d always planned to study and work internationally to enhance my life experiences, gain exposure to different world-views, and broaden my networks.

I was really excited to be awarded the Patrick Moore Scholarship to study at Cambridge University to complete the Master of Philosophy in Engineering for Sustainable Development (MPhil ESD). I saw it as a chance to pivot my career further towards sustainable water and environmental management, equip myself with skills and networks to embrace future opportunities, and to learn from best practice in the UK.

Punting on the River CamPunting on the River Cam. Image: supplied.

My background is in water engineering for municipal and industrial consumers, and I wanted to gain exposure to the UK water industry as a different context and regulatory environment compared to Australia. The UK is leading the way in implementing sustainable plans and policies, such as their commitment to de-carbonise the economy by 2050, and the requirement for all infrastructure projects to enhance biodiversity.

The world is changing rapidly and, in many cases, unsustainably. There is a major challenge for engineers across the next decade and beyond to address issues in sustainable production and consumption, mitigating climate change, and managing food, water and energy security.

We need to inspire and retain diverse people to work as engineers and lead the change in industry, government, and society. Advances in technologies provide huge opportunities, from the rollout of AI across Smart Cities, to biotechnologies that extract value from waste; however, along with technology we need leadership, integrated planning, and community action.

I’m now working alongside the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission, where I’m advising on resilience and long-term planning for infrastructure and utilities. In the future when I return to Australia, I plan to work towards implementing more sustainable practices in industry and the water sector, and to be a leader in promoting the circular economy and integrated management of natural resources. I also plan to continue working with Engineers Without Borders, where I’ve volunteered since 2014, to continue combating inequality and redefine engineering as a community-centred profession.

My advice to current students is to get the most out of their learning experience at uni by forming connections with peers and lecturers, and by getting involved in extra-curricular networks, events and mentoring. Above all, identify the areas in engineering that you care the most about, and make a positive impact on these areas throughout your career.

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