A passion for water

Maria Salam
Wednesday, March 1st, 2017


Growing up in the quiet northern town of Rajshahi, Nilufar Islam was reminded over and over again that she was a girl. Neighbours and relatives were quick to point out that her parents didn’t have a son. What they did have, however, was a steely determination to make sure that their four daughters would get every opportunity to prove themselves in life.


Today, Dr. Nilufar Islam is a high-achieving young engineer whose research is making a difference in water quality management and environmental science in Canada. Her innovative work recently earned her the Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship awarded by National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), one of the top-ranked Canadian scholarships.


“Her hard work and whole-hearted contribution in the water management field not only helped her achieve goals but also inspired hundreds of Bangladeshis working abroad,” said Dr. Shamsunnahar Yasmin, Nilufar’s friend and also a Bangladeshi professional in the US.


Nilufar has developed a total of nine decision-making tools for municipalities in the area of asset management, source water protection, policy making and water quality management in distribution systems.


She has been recognized with a number of local and national awards in Canada, including Philip H. Jones Award for best presentation at the 26th Eastern Canadian Symposium on Water Quality Research by Canadian Association on Water Quality in 2011.


Nilufar is quick to admit that she didn’t have it easy all the way. “I had always been a scared kid in my childhood and had never been a super talented person,” she said modestly. “I had to always fight to achieve anything. I found working hard is the only way to gain confidence or achieve something.”


Choosing engineering, a discipline where women are underrepresented, was a bold decision for her. Getting a job in a highly competitive field in North America was also a daunting prospect.


Talking about the challenges faced by the Bangladeshi professionals in Canada, she said: “Finding a job opportunity is one of the challenges of a professional career in Canada, especially when the economy is down. However, I was able to secure a professional job before finishing my PhD.”


Nilufar’s passion about water issues also gave her the opportunity to be the Vice-President of “Canadian Water Network Student and Young Professional Committee” (CWN SYPC), a group of emerging water leaders from across Canada who facilitate networking and collaboration on municipal water issues.


Nilufar recently created a “non-compliance potential (NCP) index” which is designed to merge difficult to understand data into simple indicators that show municipalities whether their water systems are, or are likely to, contain unwanted byproducts that are created when disinfectants react with organic materials in the water system.


The index has been used recently to study water distribution systems in many Canadian cities.


Asked what lies behind a woman’s success, the Bangladeshi engineer said: “It is her passion and unwavering ambition that drives her to do something better, better for the society and the world. A woman also needs unconditional support from her family members, especially from her parents.”


She continued: “I came from a small city, where the majority of the girls of my age had been denied their right to education. However, many of my school friends got the opportunity to access higher education and are doing very well in their respective fields both at home and abroad.”


Two of Nilufar’s sisters are engineers while a third one is a doctor and she gratefully recalled the role played by her parents in the success of their children.


She said: “My father, retired Engineer, A. K. M. Nurul Islam Mondal always wanted to see his daughters highly educated and well established. And my mother, Nurjahan Islam, never left any stone unturned to provide me with everything I needed for a better career.”


The Bangladeshi engineer completed her MASc and Ph.D. under the supervision of Dr. Sadiq and Industrial Research Chair and Professor Manuel Rodriguez from Laval University.


Asked what inspired her to work in the field of water management, the engineer said: “Growing up in Bangladesh, I was surrounded by sanitation issues which affect a large number of people in terms of getting access to clean water sources. But at an early age, I was taught that water is life and we must keep it clean and safe. So, I decided to work in this field.”


Regarding her future plan, she said: “The tools that I have so far developed are specific for smaller municipalities those have lacked in resources availability and expertise. These conditions make these tools also suitable for Bangladeshi municipalities. I would like to explore my knowledge more and would like to apply this in policy improvements in Bangladesh.”


Nilufar is passionate about helping Bangladesh manage its water resources better and suggests that the government takes preventive measures right now to protect precious water reserves.


“Small initiatives to protect our source water along with less expensive treatment facilities can save a lot of money and can also preserve energy. Education can make a big difference and we have to start it from elementary school! Protecting and preserving water should be taught to our children along with other day to day activities,” she added.


Addressing the future women leaders in Bangladesh, she said: “As women, we all are emotional. None of us can deny that. I would like to advice future women to use this emotion as a power rather than a weakness.”


“Cry as much you want but come back right after and fight back. Fight for your dignity, existence, social change, achievement, and family. Fight for anything that may lead to a better world for your children and future generation,” she said.


Short Bio:


Brought up in Rajshahi, Nilufar Islam earned a place in the Board merit lists in SSC and HSC Examinations from Rajshahi Education Board. She completed her BSc in Civil Engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in 2007.


She moved to Canada for higher studies in December 2008 and completed MASc and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from The University of British Columbia Okanagan, Canada.


She started her career as a Water Resources Engineer in WSP/MMM Group Ltd, one of the largest consulting companies in Canada, in June 2015. Later, she joined the City of Vancouver as Project Engineer to design sanitary and storm sewers.


Besides professional work, she is passionate about organizing events. She also dabbles in oil painting, face sketching, singing, contemporary dancing, acting and film editing.

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