Class of 2013: Caroline Hackett Uses Engineering Education to Help People, Solve Problems

Caroline Hackett headshot

U.Va. engineering student Caroline Hackett

After she graduates from the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Caroline Hackett is embarking on a cruise.

It’s no luxury-liner junket, though. She’ll be doing international development work with the United States Navy.

As part of the Pacific Partnership, a humanitarian and civic assistance mission in which the U.S. Navy and assorted civilian volunteers partner with other nations and agencies, Hackett will demonstrate her newly minted engineering skills in Samoa, Tonga and the Marshall Islands.

“This usually is something for doctors, nurses and dentists, but they also bring some engineers on board,” said Hackett, 21, a civil and environmental engineering major in the Engineering School and an environmental sciences minor in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Hackett became interested in the Pacific Partnership through Engineering Students Without Borders and Garrick Louis, an associate professor in systems and information engineering. She said the engineers will work with the SeaBees, the Navy’s construction arm, on projects such as building systems for harvesting rainwater or environmentally managing waste.

“I hope to be able to learn a lot of technical skills,” she said.

No stranger to travel, this will be her first summer in three years not spent in South Africa. Hackett has been working with a group of U.Va. students and professors and students from the University of Venda in Limpopo, South Africa, on the PureMadi water purification project, which created ceramic filters and discs to clean drinking water.

Hackett came to PureMadi as a first-year student, when it was a fledgling research project. The first summer, Hackett and her teammates conducted a feasibility study of community needs, funded by a Jefferson Public Citizens Grant and U.Va.’s Center for Global Health.

“We were hearing people anecdotally describe the shortcomings of the water supply and sanitation in their communities,” Hackett said. “Many villages rely on sporadic water delivery from the municipality or untreated surface and groundwater.”

The team decided to work with a local potters’ cooperative to make the filters in Limpopo, which meant building a factory. In her second summer in South Africa, Hackett and the other students provided much of the basic labor.

“I learned how to dig post holes, build roof trusses and lay brick,” she laughed.

The third summer there, Hackett and her team conducted a marketing survey to determine how best to create advertising and education programs to promote the filter, safe water and hygiene habits.

They came to understand how the women at the cooperative looked at the project.

“I learned, through trial and error and many missteps along the way, the importance of working with a community when implementing such projects as ours,” Hackett said. “Our factory will never succeed if we do not listen to the needs and desires of the communities we hope to serve.”

The things that she learned in those trips went beyond the project.  

“What started out as a potential civil engineering research project grew much more complicated over the three years I worked in Limpopo,” Hackett said. “I learned about team building, construction management, public health issues, global drinking water and sanitation issues, budget management and stakeholder engagement. I’ve learned that community dynamics are complicated and the people who hold power and influence are not always obvious to an outsider.”

She learned how to adapt and be flexible and she developed project management and team-building skills that she thinks will benefit her career.

“I’ve learned that I can adapt when carefully laid plans must be discarded due to a last-minute change or hiccup,” she said. “The fast-paced, resource-limited and constantly changing project environment was frustrating to me at first, but I learned that I can thrive in such situations. I’ve learned that I like to manage projects and contribute to their overall direction and implementation planning.”

Hackett is a member of the Raven Society, Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society and the Chi Epsilon Civil Engineering Honor Society. She is a Jefferson Public Citizens Scholar, a Center for Global Health Scholar, and a winner of the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Competition Grand Prize. Aside from her work on the PureMadi project, she has been active in SustainaUnity, a U.Va. student network linking all the environmental organizations on Grounds; the University Committee on Sustainability; Student Council Environmental Sustainability Committee; and Women’s Club Ultimate Frisbee.

The latter resume item was a welcome diversion from her more serious tasks. Though she started throwing discs in high school, Hackett did not take it seriously until she got to U.Va. and joined the club team in her second year.

“It took me a while to find my place here,” Hackett said. “I like team sports, I can get outside and get exercise and it is fun. It is a bunch of girls who form a community outside of practice.”

A graduate of Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Washington, D.C., Hackett said she had always been interested in engineering and the environment. 

“I chose civil and environmental engineering so I could learn to work at the interface of society, the built environment and natural systems,” she said. “I wanted to learn to solve environmental problems and I had a tough time deciding between environmental engineering, environmental sciences and environmental studies. I ultimately chose engineering because I see it as a practical discipline through which I can design and manage environmental studies and solutions.”

She is still contemplating her future. After she returns from the Pacific Partnership in mid-July, she will tour Europe with her brother, and then eventually work on water resources engineering, in an international development capacity or environmental policy.

“I would like to work for a year or two to develop some technical skills in water resources and/or environmental engineering, then attend graduate school for a more specific degree, such as hydrology, water resources or policy,” she said.

There are many things in flux in her life right now, but Hackett is confident.

“I learned to work with short-term uncertainty, which, as a big organizer and planner, was something that made me nervous,” she said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

Office of University Communications