Jessica North gained a BSc in Physical Geography and Soil Science from UBC (University of British Columbia) in Canada. She worked for a while, applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship, then went off to work in Thailand managing a solid waste development project for a Canadian company.
Two years into the Thailand project, the Commonwealth Scholarship people finally tracked Jessica down and told her she had one month to find somewhere to study; they found her a place at Otago (not her first pick…) pursuing a Masters in Environmental Science.
Her research explored better ways to monitor landfill sites, and Jessica’s supervisors quickly realised that tracing stable isotopes could be a useful tool.
“We realised that the landfill leachate would have a unique stable isotopic signature; there was theory but no field data. We had good connections with the manager at Green Island landfill so that gave us access at Green Island, Norwood Street and Middlemarch landfills and we started with samples from there.”
Jessica admits that she is a very practical person, not suited to purely academic pursuits. Her work on landfill leachate very quickly drew commercial inquiries, and on completion of her MSc she went back into the workforce, making use of the things she had just learned. It was commercial interests and opportunities that drew her back to complete a PhD using the same techniques, and working on sites around the country.
“This is the only lab in New Zealand doing this kind of work: no-one else is using stable isotope analysis of landfill leachate. There’s a lot of demand, but it’s a very tricky thing for landfill companies really. We can trace the isotopic signature, demonstrate clearly that there is a leak and where it’s from. But then what do you do? Commercially it’s a big problem: do you dig out the entire landfill to re-line it? What mitigating steps can you take? So while it’s a useful tool for management of landfill sites, it does open up a can of worms! And it’s still topical, still sought-after in the real world. That’s really important to me.”
Jessica’s recently been compiling a report for the United Nations Environmental Programme, looking at the climate change implications of waste management practice. Her consulting work is based in Sydney now, but it takes her all around the world. What did she particularly like about her time at Otago?
“ I really liked the creative problem-solving! People were receptive to innovation and new opportunities, creative, flexible. It was a great place to study!”