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Reflections: How Bioneers Has Impacted My Career as an Engineer

Biohabitats Senior Engineer and Practice Leader, Erin English, reflects on the dramatic impact Bioneers has had on her career.

By Erin English, LEED AP

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Erin English

On Saturday night of this year’s 2019 Bioneers Conference, we gathered for a celebratory dinner to mark 30 years of an event that has featured an astounding array of inspiring speakers and been successful in rallying a diverse, committed community of changemakers around it. Many in attendance, including those newer to the conference as well as others who have been coming to the event since its early days, stood up to attest to the impact Bioneers has had on them. The reflection I shared was that “I’m an engineer who has been forged on the hearth of Bioneers, literally.” I first picked up one of their newsletters near the end of my freshman year of college in 1997 and recalled how uplifting that experience was as a new chemical engineering student. Little did I know at the time, but that exposure led to a cascade of events that unfolded over the following four years, setting me up for what has become a life-long (so far!) career in ecological and water engineering that I could not have imagined being possible.

At the time I was searching for a meaningful way to apply that degree in an otherwise daunting academic setting which felt far, far away from an environmentally-wise choice of studies. Through Bioneers and a visionary professor, I discovered the work of Dr. John Todd, the ecological design pioneer, early “bioneer,” and innovator of the “Living Machine,” a wastewater process that harnesses the genius of natural systems. I was offered an internship, and then after graduation a full-time job, with Ocean Arks International, Dr. Todd’s design non-profit.

Erin in 2001, leading a tour of a ‘living machine”

From there I joined a partner firm, Natural Systems International, focused on constructed wetlands engineering, staying on to help merge that firm with Biohabitats a few years later. While working for Dr. Todd, I attended the 2002, 2003 and 2004 Bioneers Conferences, and have returned another three or four times since, presenting workshops and talks on regenerative and biophilic design. I also had the transformative experience of attending two weeks’ worth of Cultivating Women’s Leadership trainings hosted by Bioneers, which helped me discover and grow my own leadership skills in ways that emphasized the unique capacities of women to lead.

I am the engineer, practice leader and committed colleague that I am today in part because of the 30-year beautiful experiment called “Bioneers,” and I remain deeply grateful for this. A common critique of Bioneers is that it is ‘just preaching to the choir.’ I respond to this with both an understanding of the need to gather and recharge those on the front lines of creating a more sustainable and beautiful future, and also with a reminder that this organization is all about touching–and transforming–the hearts of those in attendance, including youth and the potentially jaded and guarded older folks . In the famous words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” To know that Bioneers continues to create such an ever-expanding and diverse group built upon open-heartedness and love, is to know that this is precisely what is needed now, in this world ripe for technical and social solutions that are beautiful, effective and able to harness our common humanity to transform how we live on Earth.


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