Engineer Diana Nicholson [BSc(BioE)/06] says she goes where she’s needed most. So far, that’s been to turbulent refugee camps in Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and to the frontlines of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. A water sanitation specialist with Doctors Without Borders, she finds ways to bring clean water and safer medical care to communities in developing countries, navigating civil war and epidemics.
IN HER OWN WORDS
I’m a very hands-on person… With Doctors Without Borders you are physically building things and changing things. It’s just incredible to see how [something starts] and then how the progression happens. And at the end when you’ve accomplished something, you can see the reaction of the people and know it’s helping them.
The first time the water comes out [of a new public tap] and everyone is cheering and the women are dancing—I had one of those experiences very early on when I was working in a refugee camp and I was just like, ‘Wow.’ It sticks with you.
To push yourself, to see what your limits are and how much you can handle is interesting…. it’s a dangerous game—it can be. But I had experience in war zones and high-stress situations so I thought I could manage that stress accordingly in that context.
[In Sierra Leone] I was basically in charge of infection prevention and control, which is kind of paramount for Ebola because it’s such an infectious disease. So, it was maintaining the infection standards within the treatment centre, so training the medical staff to put on the personal protective equipment properly, operating safely within the Ebola hot zone or the management centre, exiting safely—which is kind of one of the most dangerous parts.
Anytime you wake up with any kind of fever or feeling hot, you’re thinking ‘Am I hot because it’s hot? Or am I hot because I have a fever?’ One instance I actually did have a fever so I had to be put in isolation. While the chances that I had Ebola were very low, even that small chance needles away at your brain while you’re in isolation, all by yourself.
Where we were living [in Bossangoa] was directly across the street from the camp and it was that camp that was getting attacked. So we could hear gunshots, people screaming—the attacking party actually came into our compound at one point. It was just so close and you could hear everything. We’re lying on the floor in our safe-room area, just listening and feeling helpless at what’s going on right outside of our little gate.
You like to think that the world is nice and people are nice. But in these contexts when we’re speaking directly to rebel leaders who in some cases are bragging about torturing people and killing people, you just realize people can be monsters.
There were men shouting and people screaming and kind of all sounds of war you might imagine or might have heard in movies.
It was a very intense conflict. It was a very intense experience for the people…. They just all crowded into this space and they had no facilities whatsoever. It had been probably a few months without a good, consistent water source. There were a couple hand-dug wells but it was dirty and definitely not enough water at all—very insufficient quantities to maintain that population.
We would be stuck with empty sandbags and occasionally some lumber and we were trying to build thousands of facilities for these people in un-ideal soil conditions—clay soil—with very limited, unsophisticated materials. So it becomes a challenge.
Don’t go into a program because your friends are doing it or your mom thinks it’s a good idea. Find something you’re actually going to love.
Water and sanitation is life. You can’t live without water. It’s a very direct kind of impactful way of helping people.
I’m a very hands-on person…. With my current job [as project manager for Nelson River Construction] I much prefer being on construction sites—than in the office—with the labourers, the foreman, the people who are actually doing the work, learning how things operate, really seeing the work that is being done.
The engineer side of me, the logic side, the reasoning side, comes to the forefront and in other instances, I am a very emotional, kind of illogical person in a way. It just kind of depends on where I am and what I’m doing.
When I was doing my undergrad, one of my co-op jobs was working with Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada. I did a monitoring waste water program for all of the reserves in Manitoba, so a lot of travelling to reserves. It was an eye opener. The average person has no idea what it’s actually like on reserves and what conditions people are living in. There is no running water, no plumbing, no sanitation in some of these houses and it’s hard to imagine that it’s like that in our own backyard. It’s easy when it’s across the ocean. You can imagine in Africa, they’re very primitive—that’s the stereotype—but when it’s in your own backyard, it’s shocking and no one knows.
Find your passion and go for it.