Engineering student works to improve water infrastructure

Tolulope Odunola is driven to make an impact in developing communities

After earning her bachelor's degree in civil engineering at a premier university in Nigeria, Tolulope Odunola became fascinated by the world of hydrology and water systems and set off to continue her education in environmental engineering.

She came to the University of Cincinnati for her master's degree, and the experience left such an impact she stayed for her doctorate, working under the guidance of Patrick Ray, associate professor of environmental engineering.

Odunola was named Graduate Student Engineer of the Month by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Why did you choose UC?

My journey to the University of Cincinnati was quite an interesting one. I grew up in Nigeria and after earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, I was convinced that I needed both the exposure and improved skillset that an overseas graduate education would provide. The University of Cincinnati was not on my list initially, but upon recommendation, I browsed through the school's website and faculty profiles in my program of choice. 

After I arrived at UC, I was captivated by the beautiful architecture on campus and the diversity of nationalities represented here.

Tolulope Odunola, Graduate Student Engineer of the Month

Tolulope Odunola stands in front of Mantei Center

Tolulope Odunola

My quick survey of the university revealed that UC held much promise for my development academically and careerwise, so I did not delay in submitting my application for a master's degree in environmental engineering.

I applied to UC a few days before the deadline in 2019 and I am so glad I made the right choice. After I arrived, I was captivated by the beautiful architecture on campus and the diversity of nationalities represented here. 

Why did you choose your field of study?

I am pursuing my doctorate in environmental engineering after obtaining my master's degree in the same program in 2022. I have a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, and the little story of how I ended up in the field of engineering begins when I was in high school. Back then, I enjoyed science and mathematics, but I also loved fine arts and technical drawing, so I wanted a discipline that combined both innovative creativity and computation prowess. I explored the field of environmental design first and considered architecture, but I eventually decided on civil engineering, in part due to the broader scope of the field. 

As an undergraduate student, I learned about the environmental aspects of civil engineering. With time, water and environmental engineering began to stand out to me amongst other areas of specialization. I observed that there was still much room to contribute to the practice of environmental engineering in Nigeria, as well as to improve the standards, management, and sustainability practices of water resources and waste management systems. By the final year of my undergraduate program, I decided I would go onto graduate school to learn more about environmental engineering and gain skills in the area. This is how I ended up at UC in the Water Systems Analysis group under the supervision of Dr. Patrick Ray. 

Briefly describe your research work. What problems do you hope to solve?

Tolulope Odunola stands next to her poster at the AGU fall meeting.

Under the guidance of Dr. Patrick Ray, Tolulope Odunola has presented her research at several conferences, including the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

My research is focused on improving the economic evaluation of water resource projects under changing climate conditions.

My goal is to make significant contributions to decision science. The design, planning and operation of water projects like irrigation dams and water supply networks is affected by climate change because the amount of water that will be available in the future for such projects is uncertain.

While climate science has advanced in recent years, there is still room for improvement to standard economic evaluation using climate vulnerability assessment methodologies.

My research aims to provide decision makers in water resources engineering with robust analysis frameworks, tools, and decision metrics for confident investment decisions under climate uncertainty. I am also exploring spatial and distributional equity considerations in economic evaluation under climate change.

Tolulope Odunola and Patrick Ray at the Millennium Challenge Corporation office

Odunola is advised by Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, Patrick Ray.

Research at UC has been positively demanding and rewarding. I am thankful for my adviser, Patrick Ray, who introduced me to the world of development projects planning, climate vulnerability assessment and decision science.

I have enjoyed working on practical projects, learning new skills, and collaborating with multidisciplinary project teams. For instance, I was funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation for three years which introduced me to the work culture in a typical development agency.

I have learned to present my research to a non-technical audience and to understand and be considerate of different perspectives of water engineering systems modeling under climate change. I have had to think like an economist, an urban planner and an agronomist while building my hydrological models and approaching scenario analysis under climate change, for example.

I would say this is one of the blessings of graduate school — it eliminates myopic approaches to anything in life, research included. 

What are some of the most impactful experiences during your time at UC?

I have been privileged to attend and present at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting several times as well as the American Society of Civil Engineers' EWRI Congress. These conferences inspired and encouraged me to work harder on my research and make significant contributions to both science and industry. There was also the additional advantage of visiting and touring new cities during the conferences. 

Traveling for work and presentation sessions at the Millennium Challenge Corporation office in Washington, D.C., had a huge impact on me. I once toured D.C. with my family as a teenager. To return almost a decade later for work as a graduate student was amazing, to say the least. As you can expect, I took a selfie with a caption of my thoughts on the busy morning streets of D.C. and shared it with my family back home in Nigeria. 

What are a few of your accomplishments of which you are most proud?

Winning the Outstanding Student Presentation Award for the Hydrology Section at the AGU Fall Meeting in 2023, and the 2024 People's Choice Award at the University of Cincinnati's three-minute thesis competition are definitely at the top of my list.

I also have been a two-time recipient of the American Water Works Association Ohio Chapter Graduate Scholarship. Recently, I was awarded the Graduate Student Government Research Fellowship.

I am deeply grateful for the honor that accompanies these feats, but equally important and impactful was the process leading up to these awards during which I developed my research dissemination, writing, and presentation skills. 

When do you expect to graduate? What are your plans after earning your degree?

I aim to graduate within the next year and my plan is the same as it was in the fall of 2019 when I arrived at UC: to make an impact in human communities, one sustainable water resource project at a time. I look forward to being employed in the water industry as a water resource analyst and planner, and specifically I hope to work in an international development or foreign aid agency to provide developing countries with water infrastructure that is robust to uncertainties such as climate change. 

Do you have any other hobbies or involvements you'd like to share?

Outside of research, I enjoy reading historical fiction novels, creative writing, and exploring the beauty of nature. UC has also afforded me many leadership opportunities.

First, with the Nigerian Students' Association where I served as Secretary and three-time Electoral Committee Chairperson. Also, I have served for two tenures as the Vice President of my department's Graduate Student Association.

Plus, I had growth, leadership, and ministry opportunities by serving with Every Nation here at UC. I will always be grateful for the relationships I have made as a graduate student at UC; my church family, research group colleagues, Nigerian friends who made Cincinnati a home away from home, and several others too numerous to mention!

Featured image at top: Tolulope Odunola is studying ways to improve the infrastructure that provides clean drinking water. He was named UC's Graduate Student Engineer of the Month by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. Photo/Pixabay

Interested in becoming an engineering Bearcat?

Check out the graduate programs offered by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

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