Dr Hannah Rigby, environmental engineer
Find out more about her environmental career
This interview was conducted in 2012. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the essential subjects and salary guide sections.
What do you do?
I’m a postdoctoral researcher in the beneficial use of biowastes. I’m looking at the sustainable use of organic waste: finding ways to reuse it without causing damage to the environment. The waste can be from households, agriculture, the food industry or the pharmaceutical industry.
What did you study?
At A level I did biology, chemistry and English literature. I wanted to do biology research, although then I was thinking more of population science or genetics. I took English literature to keep my options open. I did a biology degree and then a Master’s in oceanography [the study of the oceans], focusing on coastal ecosystems. The subject of my research project was using waste from fish farms to create a product that could be fed back to the fish, and that led me to environmental engineering. I’m interested in sustainable methods of food production and reducing pollution.
What skills from your biology background do you use in your work?
I still use aspects of plant growth and nutrition that I learned in biology A level, and the general skills of designing experiments and interpreting results. The fieldwork I did at A level has transferred to my career, too: I remember a project on plant growth on sand dunes that inspired me. I still enjoy going out and doing fieldwork, as well as lab experiments.
What does a typical day entail?
My work varies from day to day, but when I’m doing fieldwork, I’ll first identify the organic wastes I want to study and visit the sites. It’s smelly, dirty work, although the wastes have sometimes already been treated. I bring the waste back to spread in controlled plots in the field before sowing seeds at the site.
How do you study the waste’s effects?
There are regular sampling trips as we monitor the site and check for weeds and pest damage, before we harvest the crop, analyse the soil and compare the waste’s effects to those of inorganic [carbon-free] fertiliser. Although there are many nutrients in the organic waste we study, not all of the nutrients are ‘available’ in the soil in a form plants can use. We assess the available nutrients so that farmers can know how much of a particular material to use as fertiliser.
What are the most challenging and satisfying things about your job?
Short-term contracts and finding funding are challenging: you don’t really get permanent positions at universities at this stage. I love the variety of my work, though, and it never really seems like a job because I’m doing something I’m interested in.
A levels: biology, chemistry, English literature (1999).
BSc, biology, University College London (2002).
MSc, oceanography, University of Southampton (2003).
PhD, environmental engineering, Imperial College London (2008).
Research assistant, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2004).
Research fellow, Curtin University, Perth, Australia (2008–10).
Visiting academic, Imperial College London (2010–).
Salary guide (2017)
Postdoctoral researcher: £29,000–£35,000 (Prospects).
Essential subjects (2017)
For environmental engineering, most courses want at least two technical or science subjects, often maths and physics or chemistry (UCAS).