From ETIA to research in Environmental Engineering

DA alumnus Richard Lee on his career since graduating from ETIA 11 in 2019

Richard LEE

DA: Following your studies at the DA, you became an Associate Researcher at TU Wien. What exactly are your responsibilities on the job and how did your career path look like so far?
Richard Lee: Specifically, I’m working for the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Institute for Water Quality and Resource Management. Our division specializes in waste and resource management, especially as linked to solid waste management (mostly household waste) and the recovery of usable materials (recycling, composting, energy generation, etc.).
I have had the privilege and the pleasure to work primarily on international development projects that have been fusing research conducted by our institute with real world applications in developing countries. As such, I’ve been tasked with a wide variety of things, which has always kept the job quite interesting. Some examples include: literature reviews on topics like refuse-derived fuels and remote sensing technologies as applied to landfill monitoring; analysis of trade data in Caribbean countries to assess the movement of hazardous wastes; development of training modules related to the management of persistent organic pollutants for implementation in multiple SADC countries; coordination of myriad stakeholders in Uganda for an OeAD-funded research programme; and even concept development and quality control testing for a software tool designed to help environmental authorities improve waste management outcomes. The list goes on and on.
Essentially, my work is project-dependent. I dive into to new topics with every new project. Occasionally, there are travel opportunities, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on some of those up until recently. Finally, it would be possible to pursue a PhD within the context of my work, which has been a source of ambivalence for me personally, but definitely important to mention for anybody who might also end up working within an academic context.

Have you always been interested in this specific career, or has this interest developed over time?
The interest in waste management came through the “environmental technology” side of the ETIA programme. One of the courses was taught in this area and it somehow fascinated me. I ended up writing my thesis in the area of generating energy from waste materials with a high enough heat value to even serve as suitable replacement for hard coal and fuel oil within the Ugandan cement industry.
After graduation, I decided to take advantage of the final weeks of my “student status”, by attending a waste management conference in Vienna for just 100 EUR (normal price stated at 800 EUR). During the conference, I ran into my old professor, along with some other familiar faces, and we got to talking about a project they might need some assistance on that was funded by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
The rest, they say, is history.

How has the DA helped you develop your career?
That’s easy. Firstly, the diversity and quality of the courses and professors. Even if I was behind on my reading assignments at times, just to be in the midst of all of those “big brains” and to receive all of their inputs was invaluable. Through them, I developed a keen interest in the colonial and neo-colonial eras which I was then able to later link to my work in developing countries. Many of the vicious cycles I had learned about so intimately became pivotal to my ability to approach my project partners with an adequate level of empathy and understanding. This has led to a higher level of trust, communication, and efficiency when attempting to carry out new initiatives in contexts oftentimes burdened by a legacy of colonial exploitation.
Secondly, the diversity of the student body. I think during my time at the DA, we had ~200 students from 5 continents and 43 countries. That in itself is an education. I had never met anyone in my life before from Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, Luxembourg, Syria, Bangladesh, or Georgia—just to name a few—and here I was casually interacting with all of them, exchanging stories about our personal experiences in our home countries, slowly becoming friends along the way. It was like being in a model UN situation without all of the heavy conflict resolution. A fantastic primer for any type of international work—and longstanding friendships. Plus, it’s been thrilling to watch everybody go down their respective paths, because within an institution like the DA, you’re sure to be amongst budding diplomats, political and military leaders, and, of course, innovators at all levels within the private sector, and you never know when you might be sitting across from a future head of state, CEO, or even, UN Secretary General. The possibilities are endless and the network you develop is worth everything.
Thirdly, all of the high caliber events that the DA invariably hosts as part of its busy event calendar. There are many functions, press conferences, debates, and so on that play host to delegations from all over the world. Attendance at as many events as I could manage was indispensable to my broader worldview and diplomatic education, especially in regards to geopolitical tensions, crisis management, and refugee migration.

Is there a specific skill set taught at the DA that is particularly useful for your current job?
Language, among many other things. I was raised in a mono-lingual family and environment. With the Academy’s German language courses, I was able to demystify the entire process and slowly progress towards my goal of reaching a C1 level, doing so within the two-year timeframe of the master’s program.
Although most of my actual work and projects are carried out in the English language at present, because I work for and with a lot of Austrian institutions, I am using the German language about 30-40% of the time, especially amongst colleagues. I have also had the occasional project in the German language, so it’s been very useful.
Broadly, this has opened up my mind to the relativistic nature and fluidity of language, which, in turn, has sparked a deeper interest in pursuing other languages too. I’ll leave which ones open to interpretation though smiley.

Is there a specific skill set taught at the TU that is particularly useful for your current job?
The direct knowledge and background in solid waste management, but not just as it pertains to the “on-the-ground” practices, processes, and technologies involved, but also the regulatory and international dimensions. I was able to learn about the EU directives that mandate certain actions by member states, but also gained a working knowledge in the various international treaties, to include, but not limited to: the Stockholm Convention, the Basel Convention, and the Rotterdam Convention, along with the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
This has made my understanding of things very broad and very specific at the same time. I can apply different lenses for different applications, both technical and policy-based. That has made it easier to interface with a wide array of stakeholders involved in waste management, from landfill operators to representatives of national environmental authorities.

Where do you think the future will take you?
To be honest, I’m not yet 100% certain. I didn’t plan to stay at an academic institution for as long as I have, but the work has been enticing enough to keep me stimulated and satisfied. That said, I would be very interested in opportunities at international organizations that fall under the, perhaps broad, area of environmental affairs. I’m especially interested in how the forthcoming climate crisis will impact different countries and create a collage of refugee crises. It’s something I don’t think the world is well enough prepared for, and I’d like to understand it further, to potentially alleviate some of that looming tension.

[March 2023]