Water, Water Everywhere—But a Ph.D. Student Sees Bigger Picture

From Tanzania to the Netherlands, Purdue doctoral student Jessica Eisma is addressing challenges of water resource management fundamental to everyday life and long-term sustainability for populations worldwide.
Purdue doctoral student Jessica Eisma

Her engineering research seeks to empower local communities’ decision-making in light of urgent needs for safe, secure water supplies, especially in low-income countries. This work benefits from interdisciplinary capabilities across the campus that encourage big-picture problem-solvers like Eisma.

The questions she is asking led her to Tanzania in 2016-2017 to probe the effectiveness of dam projects and will take her to the Netherlands in 2020 to seek better channels of communication about climate affecting local populations.

Eisma is close to completing her requirements for a PhD in civil engineering with a concentration in hydraulic and hydrologic applications. The degree will cap a consistent series of opportunities, honors and resources which together have shaped her long-term plan—a career in academia to ease international water concerns.

She recalls that weekend visits to a Michigan lakefront cottage during her childhood and an undergraduate course on fluid mechanics at Michigan State University encouraged an early interest in water resources.

A drafting and design course in high school had stirred her curiosity about structures. Even earlier, in sixth grade, a week-long program at Purdue introducing girls to the life of an engineer had sown an interest in that profession. She built on those experiences, earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

“When I was applying for graduate schools, I thought it would be rather poetic if I started and ended my engineering education at Purdue,” Eisma quipped in a recent interview

A Purdue fellowship for graduate studies awarded in 2013 attracted and supported her for the next steps. She received a master’s degree in 2015 and then continued her inquiries into water, the developing world and the impact of information and infrastructure on people’s daily well-being.

Her primary Ph.D. research has examined a growing trend of water-harvesting in sub-Saharan Africa—the construction of more than 3,000 “sand dams.” They use sand to capture the torrents of the rainy season for later release to farmers and entire communities during the dry season. As the recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Student Program Grant, she scrutinized the trend for one year from an academic base at the Nelson Mandela African Institute for Science and Technology in Tanzania.

Eisma asked a basic but broad question that few were asking: Are these dams a net gain to resolve water supply issues impacting millions of African citizens?

“I took a more holistic view of how well they’re working and what they’re doing to the local environments,” she said of the sand dams. The research embraced aspects of geology and ecology, erosion of soil and impacts on flora and fauna.

Jessica's primary Ph.D. research has examined a growing trend of water-harvesting in sub-Saharan Africa—the construction of more than 3,000 “sand dams.”

Her one-year investigation found many dams became filled not with sand, whose porosity allows efficient water storage, but with silt, which captures little water and makes it difficult to extract during droughts. Some dams dried up in a couple of months. They had been placed near populations that welcomed them, but their construction did not always align with characteristics of the land and other natural conditions.

By examining multiple hydrologic models of sand dams, Eisma is striving to suggest valuable guidelines for optimal use and placement of the structures.

This spring, with assistance from a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide grant, she will travel to the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands to participate in a different but complementary project.

An endeavor of the European Union’s “Horizons 2020” initiative grapples with inferior weather forecasting facilities in many poorer countries. The design and installation of affordable sensors and monitoring stations will connect to state-of-the-art climate modeling.

Exercising what is called “citizen science,” where collaborations between professional scientists and the general public make data analysis more accessible and useful, the initiative also aims to communicate the improved forecasts to agricultural and other sectors of society. This will facilitate crop management and decisions by all stakeholders based on better predictions of flooding and water shortages.

These efforts in the Netherlands will conclude what this graduate student calls a “rather unconventional path” at Purdue, combining coursework and research on campus with diverse, intensive collaborations abroad.

Eisma said the University has accompanied her throughout the journey, including project funding from the Center for Global Food Security and flexible mentoring from professors across disciplinary boundaries who share her interest in water.

“Purdue has supported me financially and academically,” she said. Furthermore, its resources have allowed for extracurricular activities with the Civil Engineering graduate student organization and a newly formed Academic Career Club. She has also participated in the University’s Women in Engineering Program (WIEP), whose mission is to help women and girls “discover their inner engineer.” Highlighting her long path toward water-centered problem-solving, WIEP is the program that brought Eisma to Purdue for the first time—way back in sixth grade.

By William Schmitt