Staff Profile: Dr Ruth Fisher
Dr Ruth Fisher lectures in environmental engineering and sustainability at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CVEN) . Her students are primarily at postgraduate level or final year undergraduates, the latter whom she leads in experiential and project-based learning such as planning sustainable infrastructure.
Her focus in all her courses is always firmly on the real world. Her own expertise in applied research, as a science research manager at CSIRO, means she can show students how concepts are used in practice. Ruth is a firm believer in providing students with in-depth work-integrated learning, and opportunities for knowledge exchange and collaborative research with industry partners, which as she says, “can provide many benefits for both parties.”
Ruth is an optimistic environmentalist, possibly because she knows there are solutions. “There is so much potential in Environmental Engineering at the moment,” she says, “as there are so many problems to solve such as climate change, resource loss, water shortages and pollution. Those who are graduating, or upskilling through the Masters programs have so much power, through their work with industry or continuing research, to solve these problems.
Ruth graduated with first class honours from the University of Sydney with a degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2009. A few years later she returned to the academy to gain her Masters of Engineering Science at UNSW – specialising in water, wastewater and waste engineering. A PhD soon followed, completed at UNSW in 2018, investigating the emission of odours from biosolids processing in wastewater treatment plants. Her research was funded through the CRC for Low Carbon Living project RP2008 Beneficial Reuse of Biosolids project.
Her background as a chemical engineer supports her systems thinking approaches to solving odour emissions. “As engineers we need to take a step back and look at the interactions between systems, for example, when treating an odour, we need to make sure we don’t shift the burden from one area or phase to another”.
Ruth remains interested and involved in improving the sustainability and performance of waste management systems, such as wastewater treatment. She is a member of the UNSW Odour Laboratory at UNSW Water Research Centre and is the UNSW representative on the Australian Standards Committee WS-039 for wastewater biosolids management.
“From a research perspective, “Ruth says, “being part of the Water Research Centre exposes you to different skills, approaches and expertise. This interdisciplinarity and collaboration is pretty inspiring and one of the reasons working at a university is so fantastic - you are always learning! “
Currently Ruth is continuing her research into biosolids as part of the new ARC Training Centre for the Transformation of Australia’s Biosolids Resource. “I am involved in projects relating to odour, sustainability, and risk management, and working with a great team of PhD students and postdocs. It's great to be able to conduct applied research alongside industry. It also helps my teaching practice, being able to share my research experiences and keep up to date with industry practices.”
While Ruth remains passionate about her research, it is teaching which has captured her heart, and why she has become an education-focussed academic at UNSW. “With teaching, I really enjoy the enthusiasm of students being able to take ownership and develop their own ideas and apply the concepts they have learnt. I completed a graduate certificate in university learning and teaching (GCULT) and it has been wonderful to be able to apply what I've learnt, and develop my own teaching pedagogy. “
Students rate her highly, as an “extremely motivated, engaging and insightful” lecturer. Her teaching approach is to engage students with the relevance of the topic, relating interesting real-world examples and her personal experiences with the topic. She hopes that her own genuine enthusiasm for her subjects will inspire and encourage students.
Ruth understands that students need feedback in numerous forms, particularly formative so they feel empowered and in control of their own learning, and are able to modify and develop their skills during the course. This feedback can come from teachers, but also from peers, and from self-reflection. Self-reflection embedded in subjects can assist students to identify strengths and weaknesses in professional development and to guide their development. Incorporation of formative peer assessment can enable students to develop effective communication skills, skills which are absolutely essential for engineering practice. Throughout all this learning and teaching, Ruth treats the process as a partnership not a directive.
As well as creating course content, and teaching in the classroom, Ruth has enjoyed one on one tutoring of students through the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme and Student Development International at UNSW.
Covid-19 has brought pedagogical challenges of course. “Online learning has been a challenge for students as well as staff, however it seems to be settling down now - as processes and expectations become clearer. The real challenge I think for me, is not being able to interact informally with students to get, and to give, that immediate feedback, as one would in the classroom.”
As an optimist, Ruth has, of course, found the positives. “Online learning has brought positives as I'm now working with students in different countries which has broadened the knowledge sharing of different challenges and practices around the world. It has also hopefully made education more accessible so that the teaching world post-covid will be richer for having gone through these challenges.
Ruth practices what she preaches. Reflecting her commitment to sustainability she is an active cyclist and a keen gardener. Spending more time at home recently, Ruth has enjoyed exploring local parks and seeing the increase in family bike trips and balcony gardens round her area. She is always searching for ways to do more with less and has been inspired by the surge in local communities and producers which helps remind us of mindful consumption.
Not only that, Ruth is a skilled dressmaker and particularly enjoys redesigning fashion and repurposing textiles. The scale of her sewing projects have somewhat shrunk with arrival of her first daughter in 2020 - both in scope and in size.) She is a regular blood and plasma donor and in 2019 completed her 50th donation, but has her sights set on reaching 100!
This talented, dedicated and generous academic who brings so much to her UNSW students and research colleagues feels like she’s the lucky one. “I feel lucky to be able to inspire others with my enthusiasm, help them develop their professional skills and abilities and provide them with an understanding, not only of the challenges which need to be addressed, but also methods they can use to approach, visualize, and solve them. “
And she remains ambitiously optimistic for the future of our planet. “In the next few years “Ruth says, “I would like to see our UNSW Environmental Engineering programs becoming world renowned, because we can help to solve so many of the challenges we are now facing.”