Phyllis Mbewe: Engineering for Environmental Health

Phyllis Mbewe says her post-Duke plans will lead her back to her African roots. Photo by Jon Gardiner

International student and University Scholar Phyllis Mbewe came to Duke with a plan to focus on infrastructure issues related to her home country of Zambia. But her research interests quickly expanded to broader issues in environmental engineering, such as groundwater remediation and improving sanitation in developing countries.

Enrolled in the Pratt School of Engineering, Mbewe spent many days and nights in Hudson Hall. She conducted research as a Pratt Fellow with civil and environmental engineering associate professor Zbigniew J. Kabala and later did an independent study with professor Marc Deshusses.

In addition to the long hours spent in the lab, Mbewe pursued fieldwork opportunities that included testing the effluent quality of drinking water and wastewater during one of her summer vacations in Zambia.

She also spent a summer in Kenya participating in a DukeEngage program with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, a non-governmental organization.

While in Kenya, Mbewe worked on a recycling project with unemployed women and youth, helping them gain skills to create recycled products that could be sold.

Although her intensive engineering curriculum allowed little free time, Mbewe was able to indulge in a few non-science pursuits. She took courses in art history, French, economics, and psychology. She sang with the a capella group Sapphire, played Ping-Pong with friends, and served as a freshman advising counselor.

Her freshman writing course, "Dance Into Words," which required students to attend performances, write reflective and critical essays, and participate in dance, introduced her to capoeira, a Brazilian hybrid of martial arts, dance, and music. Unfortunately, she says, she was never able to fit in a swimming class into her engineering schedule, so she still hasn't learned to swim.

Mbewe also has served as a mentor to three other students who came to Duke from Pestalozzi International Village Trust, the British high school she attended.

"I told them that Duke is not easy," she says, "but that they can learn to stand on their own two feet."

After graduation, Mbewe will attend graduate school in the U.S. to earn a master's and Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering. "Eventually I would like to teach and do research in Africa, but I also want to gain experience by working in industry," she says. "Whatever happens, I still want to have an impact on improving conditions back home in Africa."