Wastewater Engineer: Dr. Ashley Murray

Wastewater Engineer: Dr. Ashley Murray

Profile of Dr. Ashley Murray, wastewater engineer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

Grades

5 - 12+

Subjects

Earth Science, Engineering, Health

Ashley is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is working with businesses and governments in Africa to reuse wastewater as a profitable enterprise.

Ashley’s business, Waste Enterprisers, is actually a network of many small businesses. Waste Enterprisers uses human waste as its primary input. (Yes, “human waste” is poop!) The waste contributes to such enterprises as a fish farm and, possibly, industrial fuel.

By making people aware of the financial cost of sanitation and waste, Ashley says we can begin to put a serious value on both the raw materials (nutrients in waste) and sanitation itself.

EARLY WORK

Ashley grew up with the “reduce, reuse, and recycle” goal. Although wastewater was never a dominant issue in Andover, Massachusetts, where she grew up, she was always aware of the importance of saving water and keeping it clean.

Ashley earned her PhD from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California at Berkeley.

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Trying to prove sanitation can be a viable business model.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

Obsession. “I’m always thinking about the possibilities for new methods, resources. . . . My friends are sick of hearing about [poop]!” she laughs.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“The social and cultural context of an idea or place.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Ashley first became aware of the sanitary hazards posed by wastewater through literature and personal experience. National Geographic Fellow Sandra Postel’s book Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity forced Ashley to confront the idea that Earth has a limited supply of freshwater—for agriculture, drinking, industry, and sanitation.

When Ashley moved to Ghana, the implications of a lack of freshwater became clear. “Any surface water is an open sewage stream,” she says. “It’s hard to overstate the enormous health and environmental impacts of inadequate sanitation.”

It was also in Ghana that Ashley realized the biggest barrier to sanitation is economics. “The standard model is that the government takes care of waste. Well, in a developing nation like Ghana, the government can’t afford to be responsible for all the waste. So we needed a new business model. The new model provides incentives to entrepreneurs and residents to recycle their waste.”

For a small fee, Waste Enterprisers will pick up a client’s waste and responsibly put it to use. “It’s changing the way we finance sanitation, and looking at waste as a resourcechemical fertilizer,” Ashley explains.

The fertilizer feeds an aquaculture farm that uses a system of ponds. Hazardous chemicals are filtered out in the first series of ponds. By the final ponds, the water is full of nutrients that allow catfish to flourish.

Even though the ponds are safe, Ashley is quick to say the fish could never be sold raw. However, fish in Ghana are not sold as a raw product. They are smoked until they resemble a dry, durable, jerky-like product. “The way fish is sold in Ghana makes it possible for fish grown in fish ponds to be safely sold and eaten,” Ashley says.

Ashley admits the idea of eating fish grown in a pond fertilized with human waste may be a tough sell to Western consumers. “The technology is transferrable, but not socially or culturally.”

SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENVIRONMENTAL ENTREPRENEUR

Ashley strongly recommends pursuing an engineering degree. “Any engineering program gives you a strong tech base, and you can use that for almost any business.”

GET INVOLVED

Although she now lives in Accra, Ghana, Ashley lived in China and India for years, and she encourages everyone to “travel for the sake of travel.”

Just visiting different regions or countries can result in “real exposure to other cultures,” she says. “It can be really rewarding, and you’re also spending money in the area and contributing to the economy.”

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Producer
National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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