Elle Sandifer is a 2020 graduate of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. After graduation, she worked as a process engineer with Sanergy to address urban sanitation challenges in Nairobi, Kenya.
Can you tell us about Sanergy and your work with the company?
Sanergy is a startup that addresses the lack of sanitation services and waste management in Nairobi, Kenya. The company franchises FreshLife latrines to communities in Nairobi and then organizes the regular collection of the waste from these latrines. Rather than simply disposing of it, the waste is taken to a processing facility where 100% of it is used to make products that can be used by the local community. Some of the waste is processed using a Black Soldier Fly bio-waste treatment method that results in larvae animal feed. The rest is mixed with agricultural waste from the surrounding area to be composted and sold back to Kenyan farmers as fertilizer.
My time with Sanergy was spent as a process engineer, which I found to be incredibly interesting and purposeful. The team I worked with was focused on the expansion of the company. We completed conceptual designs of future, optimized processing facilities while looking to improve current processes and technologies. As Sanergy is a start-up that is rapidly expanding, I was thrown into the mix immediately. A company like this means more responsibility and autonomy right off the bat, but it also creates space for innovation and welcomes learning on the job. My team’s work moved quickly and we designed three separate facilities in the time I worked there. Working with Sanergy was a great mix of technical engineering and impact-focused work. I had great co-workers and mentors and am so grateful for my time there.
What did your path from the University of Colorado Boulder to Sanergy look like? Are there experiences you had at CU Boulder that helped you prepare for your work after graduation?
I was first introduced to engineering for developing communities through Engineers Without Borders (EWB) during my first year at CU Boulder. There are multiple teams on campus and I highly recommend checking them out. While EWB is student-led and can be slow moving due to the travel limitations of college break schedule, the drive within the team to do the best work for our partner community in Nepal had a big impact on me. My time working with EWB inspired me to figure out how I could use my degree in service to others.
Another huge part of my path was a research opportunity that I participated in through the Discovery Learning Apprenticeship program. There are all kinds of research projects to choose from and I focused on applying for development-based projects. I worked with the United States Agency of International Development’s Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership, assisting a PhD student in her study of collaboration on water projects in East Africa. I absolutely loved the position and continued to work with her after graduation.
Finding a job or internship in international development may mean that you could be working for free. During the three months before I was hired by Sanergy, I worked as an unpaid fellow, an opportunity that was made possible by the SEE Grant. I also completed an unpaid internship with a great Portland-based organization called Green Empowerment while working as a barista. This is a difficult part of working in development, but alternative funding sources are always out there. Applying for jobs internationally can seem like a long shot, but organizations are really just looking for passionate people. I had no connection to Sanergy or Kenya when I applied, so if you find something interesting out there, go for it!
What advice would you have for a current or prospective CU Boulder student interested in working with organizations that are doing work related to global health and the environment?
An engineering degree is powerful to have and can be used to have a real impact on problems directly affecting people and the climate. There are more technical organizations than you think working on these problems and I encourage you to seek them out when looking for internships and job opportunities. My biggest advice would be to get involved with things you are interested in outside of coursework while you are still in school. Universities have a really unique environment with innovative projects happening in all spaces and there are many opportunities that are only for current students. This will make you a stronger candidate for jobs, but more importantly, it will help you find your passion within engineering.
I made a list of organizations or programs that I have either been a part of myself, worked closely with someone who was involved or just think are doing great work. Places that I have used as job search engines to find positions in these fields are included as well. This is not a comprehensive list, but I hope it can give students who want to explore a place to start. Please feel free to reach out to me via email or LinkedIn if you have any questions or want to chat about getting involved at CU Boulder!