Shion Watabe: Clear Waters Ahead

Shion Watabe

Reliable drinking water, grid electricity, and sewer connections are not a given; more than 4 billion people across the globe lack safely managed sanitation. Increasing access to sustainable sanitation systems in both resource-limited and technologically advanced communities is daunting, but it’s a challenge that the Guest Lab Group at the University of Illinois has risen to meet. Among them, Shion Watabe, a master’s student in environmental engineering, is committed to making a positive impact.

Watabe grew up in rural Australia. She came to America to pursue education and athletics, earning her bachelor’s in civil engineering and competing as a Division I tennis player at the University of Idaho. In her junior and senior years, she took an interest in environmental engineering classes, and her senior thesis focused on making different aspects of civil engineering, like buildings and infrastructure, more sustainable.

During her undergraduate studies, Watabe joined a civil engineering lab to study the kinetics of wastewater treatment, going on to complete an internship in consulting for environmental engineering. This job had her working out in the field with local municipalities near the University of Idaho, many of whom possessed outdated and over-capacitated wastewater treatment systems in need of innovative updates and redesign.

“It was really fascinating, but I discovered through my internship that (wastewater treatment) wasn’t what I was most passionate about. I was motivated to explore opportunities that looked beyond meeting what is required today, and pursue novel and innovative approaches to sanitation issues we will face into the future. This pushed me to go into studying for my master’s and going into research,” Watabe said.

In 2020, she came to work for Jeremy Guest, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign while pursuing a master’s in environmental engineering.

The overall goal of the Guest Research Group is to contribute to sustainable sanitation infrastructure and its ease of access, particularly in low-income communities. Most of these underserved populations are limited in their access to safe drinking water, grid electricity, and sewer connections.

Worldwide, the lack of proper sanitation costs an estimated $223 billion per year.

“There is a strong need for appropriate sanitation technologies to improve environmental and human health, especially in resource-limited settings where low sanitation access is coupled with economic poverty and scarce employment opportunities,” said Guest, the Lead of iSEE’s seed-funded Sanitation Technology Project — and who also serves as iSEE’s Associate Director for Research.

Sustainable Design Wheel featuring three key components marked in green (Experimentation), blue (Modeling), and grey (Quantitative Sustainable Design).

Members of the Guest Lab Group combine experimentation, modeling, and quantitative sustainable design into their approach. Credit: Guest Lab Group

The group works toward this goal by modeling and analyzing a variety of sanitation systems and technologies. Watabe and her colleagues use methodologies like techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessment to convert diverse sanitation technologies into standard functional units, making comparison easier and allowing her team to discover inefficiencies. These results help design teams optimize their technologies and improve their deployment strategies.

“For example, we might look at cost per user per day of a certain (sanitation) technology, and then also its greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication effects, and various other quantitative categories,” she said.

The lab has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to analyze new sanitation technologies created and received a $1 million grant as part of the Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet” Challenge. Thanks to insights from the Guest Lab, these innovative technologies are low-cost, low-energy, and continually being improved.

Aside from her work with quantitative sustainable design, Watabe is exploring subjects for her thesis. There’s no shortage of topics in the realm of sustainability.

“There’s so many different aspects we can study, whether that’s just purely the environmental side, the economic side, or even the social side,” she said. “The field of sustainability is very interdisciplinary. It’s so broad and can be applied to so many different things, so I hope it becomes more of a focus in various other fields.”

She’s currently looking into the financial side of sanitation, and how economic models and methods can interact with the relative sustainability of sanitation technologies.

“A big issue in sanitation is the economic sustainability,” Watabe said. “The capital costs and operation and management costs are both important factors — it’s expensive to sustain a technology and continuously operate it for many years in a community. Being able to fund that and make sure the economic side isn’t causing poor outcomes is important. I’m really interested in contributing to that financial framework that can lead to the sustained supply of safe sanitation.”

Photo depicts a digital model of a bathroom complete with innovative, sustainable design.

In 2018, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined global innovators, development banks, corporate partners, sanitation utilities, and governments to host the first Reinvented Toilet Expo in Beijing. Credit: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This semester, one of Watabe’s classes is ACE 476: Behavioral Economics and Financial Decision Making, which neatly ties in with this topic. Students use applied economics and finance in the context of psychology to better predict consumer behavior. It’s quickly become one of Watabe’s favorite classes, as it allows her to explore one of her field’s fascinating interdisciplinary aspects.

“The way forward and the solution to a lot of these difficult-to-tackle challenges is working with different disciplines,” she said. “In our group, we collaborate with a range of engineering specialties, as well as faculty and students in law, natural resources and environmental sciences, sociology, and economics, to name a few. There’s a lot to gain from others’ perspectives and experiences.”

Watabe is exploring her options for the future. She may continue her education and pursue a Ph.D., pursue an industrial career, or partner with a nonprofit organization. Regardless, she’s looking forward to all the research contributions she’ll make along the way.

“What I enjoy the most about being part of this research group is that my contributions are helping make an impact to advance research in the issue of universal sanitation coverage,” Watabe said. “Being able to do meaningful research is really rewarding, and I feel like all the work I do is worthwhile.”

 — Article by iSEE Communications Intern April Wendling