The newest recipient of the Engineers Canada Young Engineer Achievement Award has had a few achievements to celebrate recently.
University of Toronto civil engineering assistant professor Jennifer Drake was announced as the 2019 Engineers Canada honouree on March 29, and last year she was recognized by Professional Engineers Ontario with a Young Engineer medal.
Then there was a third major prize, in late November — the birth of her second child, a baby boy.
Drake is now on maternity leave until October, but she’s not exactly taking time off from her research. She was reached on a morning when a babysitter was on hand and she was consulting with one of the grad students she is still advising on what is termed the Drake Research Team.
“I love my job, so I am still supervising about seven grad students,” said Drake. “It’s a bit unconventional, having students come over to my house.”
The work is not only rewarding but it’s proving to be of major policy importance as urban municipalities search for ways to deal with increasing flows of stormwater.
Drake and her team of researchers — over half of whom are women, a point she noted is not merely coincidental — consult with cities, conservation authorities and the private sector to introduce “low impact development” systems using such integrated tools as green roofs and permeable pavement as an alternative to traditional stormwater solutions, she explains.
“What our group has promoted is that instead of viewing stormwater management as an end-of-pipe system, with stormwater managed through a pond, we focus on using green technology or distributive technology and recognizing the need for a unique solution for each project.”
The point, she said, is to get beyond static models where city or provincial engineers think, “If we used a pond last time, we need a pond this time.”
Drake, 36, has been a professor for six years — given her prolific research and publishing record as an undergrad and grad engineering student, she was hired by the U of T six months before she received her doctorate. Solutions she and her team of masters and PhD candidates have devised are already in place across the province.
In 2014, for example, she developed new regional flood equations for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation that replaced the ministry’s Modified Index Flood Method. She has also worked with the Cities of St. Catharines and Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
Toronto, with its green roof bylaw, is a perfect candidate for the solutions she helps develop as co-researcher in hydrology at Toronto’s Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory. Over the course of a growing season, almost half of the rainwater would be captured by a green roof, it was discovered.
“When you have this technology combined with strong policy like a bylaw, it can really have a large effect,” said Drake.
The professor said she’s excited about some of the initiatives she and her students will be undertaking when she returns to work in the fall. New techniques and materials such as biochar, made of wood, will be employed to study the integration of green roofs and rainwater harvesting and recycling, she explained, with the biochar experiments intended to increase the ability of soils to hold water and improve the sustainability of plants.
“It’s really exciting, we’ll have a new lab when I am back from maternity leave with a new group of students,” said Drake.
Another potential project she is enthusiastic about involves the use of sensors to develop smart systems that can anticipate stormy weather and take steps such as emptying reservoirs to reduce flooding.
Every year her team has achieved gender parity or better, Drake noted.
“People say it is important for women to have role models in engineering. This shows why,” she said. “In many cases there have been female students seeking me out as their potential supervisor. I did the same thing, sought out a female supervisor when I entered the PhD program.
“I think it is important for women to have leadership roles in engineering, because it attracts more women to the field and to stay in the field.”
Drake has trained over 40 graduate and undergraduate students. Past students are now working in water resources engineering for firms such as Hatch and JR Burnside, and in the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.