Nisha Marwaha completed both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UC Davis' College of Engineering, working with the UC Davis Student Farm and the UC Davis SCOPE Project, on campus, as well as UC Davis Engineers Without Borders in Peru, along the way.
Her graduate research looked into groundwater issues like well failures and water scarcity mitigation in rural communities in California’s Central Valley, which ultimately helped her secure a job with WorldFish, an international nonprofit research organization that works to reduce hunger and poverty in developing countries by improving fisheries and aquaculture.
“I actually did both my bachelor’s and my master’s in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. It was definitely something about UC Davis and its charm, and being rooted in the food system all around you, that drew me to agriculture,” she says.
However, Marwaha’s decision to pursue a career in agricultural engineering resulted from her time as an intern at the Student Farm.
“I had this inkling that agriculture was the path for me, so I got a volunteer position at the Student Farm, and really just fell in love with working in the field with other students and farmers,” she says. “Being so connected to my food was also really incredible—going beyond cooking and eating to the production side of things and seeing how that food gets to the table in the first place was what really drew me to agriculture.”
Prioritizing Human Complexity Over Technical Simplicity
During Marwaha’s master’s, she joined the lab of Helen Dahlke, an associate professor of physical hydrology in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and a member of the biological systems engineering graduate program, to research the dynamics between natural resources, land use, and poverty.
“It wasn’t just an engineering project, it was human-centric research to create solutions for water scarcity,” she says. “That’s what really drew me to the project—that and Dr. Dahlke being my mentor. She was an inspiring mentor, a leader in her field, and I feel lucky I had such an accomplished mentor to guide me through my master’s”
Because Marwaha’s work on water scarcity mitigation strategies for rural communities in the southern Central Valley centered on impact, the results produced tangible outcomes that came from both rigorous scientific work as well as community participation.
To help bring awareness of this type of research to undergraduate students, she presented her multidisciplinary findings to the Global Education Opportunity Living-Learning Community (GEO LLC) on campus, which helps first-year UC Davis students get a better idea of ways to address global issues in an equitable and sustainable way, as well as the research opportunities available to help support the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
“For the GEO LLC, I put together a presentation about my thesis research and the SDGs to emphasize to the students that these global challenges start at home, and are happening right here in California,” Nisha says. “While we can address them from the technical side of things using an engineering outlook, that research is not independent; it is one piece of a more interdisciplinary approach that absolutely involves the communities that we’re trying to help with this research.”
The interdisciplinary approach of Marwaha’s research was critical to the project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the larger UC Davis interdisciplinary project Dynamics of Water Supplies, Land Use, and Disadvantaged Communities.
“I explained that we spoke with the community members who are experiencing some of these water scarcity issues, and also worked with farmers, policymakers, and other advocates in the region,” she says. “That’s why this project lends itself so well to the SDG framework. Because we have so many different people involved—whether they’re scientists or stakeholders—we need to look at the idea of partnerships and how to strengthen them so that we can work together and create good solutions that are comprehensive as well as beneficial to all parties involved.”
Marwaha sees the application of this regional research at the global level as an important part of looking at ways to reduce other forms of inequality resulting from climate change.
“On the one hand, the goal of this research is focused on making sure everyone has access to clean drinking water, but it also broadens out when you begin addressing issues within the social, political, and economic dynamics of the region’s agricultural industry, because you’re trying to find a solution that aims to benefit everyone,” she says.
“I think that’s why agriculture is so interesting in California, because the complex dynamics we find right here in our region can also be found in other parts of the world and addressed at the local, regional, and global levels.”