Celebrating women behind mining and wastewater use

Published: 18/08/2016
Dr Jo Burgess, WRC Research Manager

“If you don’t put anything in, you won’t get anything out. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”

Dr Jo Burgess is not only one of only a handful of women to become President of one of South Africa’s leading water sector institutions – the Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA), she is also considered a knowledge leader in the field of mine-water.

Jo was born and raised in England, and completed her studies there. She has a PhD in Environmental Biotechnology, and a Masters of Research in Innovating Manufacturing, specializing in Water Pollution Control Technology – both from Cranfield University.

She explains her entry into the water sector: “I love clean water and the creatures that live in it. I came into water research from an environmental protection background, first looking at pollution control and then getting into industrial wastewater treatment for my PhD. I was hooked on water research from that point on…I worked on a new process for a wastewater treatment plant that was releasing untreated antibiotics into a river.

“In 1993, the river was dead, just dead; killed from the very bottom of the foodchain upwards. The possible options were tested in the laboratory, and then the most promising two options went to pilot trials, which I ran at Yorkshire Water’s sewage treatment works. One of those pilot plants worked, and the new method was implemented in the new treatment plant. By 1999, the river was alive: there were plants, and fish and birds. It was amazing!”

Jo’s first post in South Africa was as a senior postdoctoral research officer in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Biotechnology at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown. In 2004, she became Head of Biotechnology within the department, where she stayed until 2008. Later that year she joined the WRC, where she is a Research Manager, focusing on managing research in mine-water management and treatment technology.

WRC Research Managers are scientist and/or engineers in their own areas of work who fund and facilitate projects that are carried out by researchers at universities, water boards, backyard inventors and private companies. Most WRC research managers handle about 30 projects at a time.

“In addition, we offer policy and other advice to the relevant government departments,” explains Jo. “We also serve the research community and water sector, for example, by holding posts as adjunct research staff at universities (Jo is a Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University), by serving on the Boards of water companies, and by acting as external examiners for courses and theses at academic institutions.”

In 2014, Jo was elected President of WISA. She also served as Chairperson of the WISA Board. In addition, she was one of the founding members and the first President of the Young Water Professionals network. She believes that women and men deserve equal places at the table for discussion and decision making, and equal opportunities for personal contribution to growth.

Jo considers herself lucky to have had a succession of fairy godmothers/godfathers guiding her along her career path. “If I had to choose my three most inspirational mentors, they would be Tom Stephenson, Chris Buckley and Heidi Snyman. They’re of different nationalities and genders, but the main thing they have in common is an enormous generosity of spirit – they are willing to give it their time, knowledge, support, information, contacts and energy without hesitation. They have each risen to the top of their respective organisations, and/or fields of expertise with integrity, and I admire and aspire to that.”

According to Jo, people are the greatest challenge in her day-to-day job. “Probably the trickiest thing is to get rival companies to collaborate. For example, I ran a project to investigate and decide the best methods of mining coal in the Waterberg region to avoid creating mining impacted water, and one to work out the best way of handling mining waste for the same purpose. That involved getting 17 mining companies to talk to each other and to the regulator and share their data with each other. For those projects the science was easy, but the human aspects were hard.”

The most important lesson that she has learnt during her career is that the satisfaction you derive from something – a job, a project – is directly proportional to the size of the investment you made towards it in terms of time and effort. “If you don’t put anything in, you won’t get anything out. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”