Western prof among top Canadian women in science

Environmental engineer Martha Dagnew was recognized for her research on threats
Environmental engineer Martha Dagnew was recognized for her research on threats to the water system, including climate change and new contaminants, and her work to minimize their impact on freshwater. (Megan Stacey/Western News)
Western engineering professor Martha Dagnew is one of three women scientists across the country to be named to the 3M 25 Women in Science Program , the first time it has recognized recipients in Canada.

Dagnew, a civil and environmental engineer who leads the Biofilm Engineering and Wastewater Resource Recovery Laboratory at Western, joins a cohort of global scientists whose innovative work is transforming the landscape of environmental sustainability.

"I am passionate about what I do and always aspire for my work to make a profound impact. It’s nice to see that recognition. I am thrilled to be selected in the first Canadian cohort for the 3M 25 Women in Science Program; thank you, team 3M," Dagnew said.

The company has honoured women scientists in Latin America for the last three years, with 2024 marking the inaugural year in Canada.

"This year, the program is recognizing and celebrating women whose work in the fields of STEM is changing the world through a focus on environmental sustainability," 3M said in its announcement.

Dagnew’s groundbreaking research helps to protect water sources in the face of some of their gravest threats, such as climate change, growing urban populations and emerging contaminants from industrialization.

"Many, many years back, water was relatively clean. The rivers, lake water, groundwater - people could just drink it. That was before industrialization. Then, we noticed people getting sick from drinking water. We started to learn that industrial processes impact our water quality. Now our water needs to be treated so it’s safer for humans to consume," she said.

"The main thing I’m addressing is major stressors on our water bodies, and how can we minimize the impact to freshwater bodies - our source water."

’All about solving problems’

Dagnew focuses on solutions that have the smallest footprint - whether in greenhouse gas emissions, energy and carbon use, or physical space - to ensure her approaches are as sustainable as possible.

"Traditional processes, in place right now, require a lot of these - energy, space, use of carbon and generation of greenhouse gases. My innovation is to use and make less," Dagnew said.

She leads the Greenway Wastewater Technology Testing Bay at the City of London’s Greenway Pollution Control Plant.

Dagnew looks at a few specific substances impacting water quality, including nutrient overloads that encourage the growth of algae and a group of what’s called "emerging contaminants," such as microplastics and PFAS (perand polyfluoroalkyl substances), which are long-lasting chemicals that break down very slowly.

In recognition of her contributions to science, Dagnew will also be included in the digital book 25 Women in Science 2024 , which will be released later this year.

"Science thrives on diversity. To solve the real environmental challenges we face, people of all backgrounds must come together." - Marie-Claude Brandys, managing director of 3M Canada

"Significant milestones have been achieved in attracting young women to study in the fields of STEM, but we still have a way to go in representing women in STEM leadership. That is why 25 Women in Science is an important program - because visibility and representation of women leaders in STEM matters," Brandys added.

Dagnew hopes to see more women pursue engineering. It drives her involvement in diversity and inclusion work and efforts to bring more women into STEM.

"It’s getting better, but we still have a long way to go. There is a gap somewhere," she said of the number of women who study those fields.

"I see women who really love solving problems, and engineering is all’about solving problems."

A conversation with Lily Cho, vice-provost and associate vice-president, Western International 130 views