By Swati Hegde, PhD
Senior Academic Research Coordinator
The Water Center at Penn

In Fall 2020 The Water Center awarded grants to 8 graduate students under the Student Support Program Award.

As the US economy continues to grow, there is still a struggle to translate this growth into more equitable and inclusive employment opportunities. The US water infrastructure has aged, calling for an urgent need for repair, maintenance and restoration. However, it is not just the infrastructure that is aging. A significant percentage of the skilled workforce capable of carrying out these operations is eligible for retirement leading to a “Silver Tsunami” in the water sector. The increasing number and complexity of water challenges brought on by climate change, global health issues, a global recession, aging infrastructure, etc. will require more innovation and bold leadership.

While the aging workforce is a challenge for the water industry, it also has created a new pipeline of opportunity for the younger generation. According to Brookings Report, the water sector workforce lacks gender and racial diversity with 85% of the workforce being male (nearly two-thirds white), pointing towards a need for younger, more diverse talent. On the brighter side, water related occupations tend to pay more than the national average compared to all occupations. 

The water sector clearly represents a plethora of opportunities for the younger generation that wants to serve the economy, environment and society. However, the next generation of young professionals must view the water sector as an attractive, rewarding and meaningful career option. As emerging leaders, young minds must be supported through mentoring, guidance and encouragement. 

One of the Water Center’s primary objectives is to support a diverse generation of future water leaders, especially our own Penn Students. Since its inception in 2018, the Water Center has initiated many student programs to engage an inclusive body of Penn students and encourage them to take up careers in the water sector. Our student programs are designed to effectively engage the university community with local and regional decision makers, water practitioners and global thought leaders.  

Graduate Student Research Support Program

Our Undergraduate Fellows, Marielle Kang (left) and Ennie Akinwunmi(right)

The Water Center’s student support program for undergraduate and graduate students started in the fall of 2019. It aims to recognize academic excellence and prepare students for leadership by encouraging applied research and community engagement. So far, we have provided student support to 22 students through two cycles of the grant program and assisted them in successfully completing their research, capstone and independent research projects. At the end of the grant period, their work is featured in our quarterly newsletter, blog or student showcase page. Watch the recording of our recent Graduate Student Showcase here.

Undergraduate Fellowship on Water, Equity and Climate Resilience

Recently launched in the spring of 2021, the undergraduate fellowship on water, equity and climate resilience aims to recognize and mentor a diverse Penn undergraduate student population. The selected students are mentored by the Water Center staff, Penn faculty and local water professionals to understand equity and climate resilience issues surrounding watersheds. The fellowship program is highly competitive and two outstanding students are selected every year through an interview process.  

Graduate Research Assistantships

One of the principal ways we train the next generation of water leaders is to engage students in our own research projects. The Water Center is currently supporting seven graduate students as research assistants on our various projects. The students work with internal and external members of the project team, stakeholders and other project partners. Because of the applied nature of these projects, students not only get the much needed academically-oriented basic knowledge of a research project but also outward-facing professional experience. This experience is critical in bridging the gap between industry and academia and helps students understand real world situations.

Members of the Isla Urbana student chapter at Penn during their trip to Mexico City.

Water-Related Student Chapters at Penn

Since its inception in 2018, the Water Center has been supporting several student chapters and clubs in the form of sponsorship, outreach and mentoring. The Water Center has been instrumental in starting a new American Water Works Association (AWWA) chapter at Penn in the spring of 2019. This is the only AWWA student chapter thus far in Pennsylvania. In addition, we also work with Isla Urbana at Penn, Climate Leaders at Penn, ThinkOcean chapter at Penn, Student Sustainability Association at Penn, and Penn RainWorks Student clubs. We love to work with and mentor these student bodies in furtherance of our mission to help them take up environmental leadership in the future. 

The Journal of Gender and Water

The Journal of Gender and Water (wH2O) provides various volunteer opportunities to Penn students in service of the scholarly community. Currently, there are six committed students serving as reviewers and associate editors for the Journal. The Journal also provides opportunities to publish student research after a peer review process. The Journal introduces students to all aspects of global water and gender issues as well as editing and reviewing skills. This exposes them to both academic and applied research as well as helps them attain editorial skills.

Student feature in the Water Exchange newsletter

The Water Exchange newsletter is an excellent opportunity for Penn students to share and publicize their water-related research. In every quarterly issue, we feature a student article under the “Student Voices” section of the newsletter. This outlet helps our student research reach thousands of readers and creates more impact for their work. 

Collaborative internships and other opportunities

Erica DePalma, second from the left, visited Botswana in 2019

The Water Center facilitates change in the water sector. We collaborate with local, regional and global institutions to provide internship and professional mentoring to Penn students. So far, the Water Center has collaborated with Philadelphia Water Department, Okavango Research Institute, Botswana, University of Maryland, and Safe Water Network, India on internships and fellowships for students. With these opportunities, students are exposed to real-world research and obtain new perspectives. In addition to external institutions, we collaborate with the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowship (CURF), Perry World House and Penn Sustainability on a regular basis to offer student opportunities. 

We also mentor capstone research and provide volunteer opportunities if students are interested in any of our projects, or interested in independent research. Since the fall of 2019, the Water Center has supported 35 water-enthusiastic students financially, and hundreds of students via mentoring, networking, and other professional development opportunities. 

In summary, our student programs are designed to help students gain insights into local and global water challenges, network with industry professionals and transform the next generation of water leaders into effective catalysts of change. 

For more information on student opportunities at the Water Center and the Journal of Gender and Water, email Swati Hegde at


Swati Hegde is the Senior Academic Research Coordinator at the Water Center at Penn. She is also serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Gender and Water. Swati’s research interests include water pollution/quality, food-water-energy nexus and the intersection of gender and water. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability, and a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemical Engineering.