Q&A: Brittany Coff, Research Analyst

July 27th, 2015

After growing up in the Adelaide Hills, Brittany Coff, 28, has found her niche in the not-for-profit sector.

The Cambridge Masters graduate, who is currently based in Canada, utilises her background as a civil engineer as a research analyst for the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technologies in developing countries.

She talks about the varied career she’s chosen, her life-changing experience attending Cambridge University and shares her advice for others who are interested in a career in international development.

Brittany Coff

Brittany Coff

How long have you been in your current role?
I started working with CAWST (the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technologies) as a Research Analyst in October 2013.

In layman’s terms, how would you describe what you do?
CAWST is a not for profit engineering consultancy that supports the start-up and scale-up of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs in developing countries. We do this by providing a range of professional consulting services to organisations that are working on WASH in their own communities, all around the world. Our services include technical training, consulting support and providing educational materials to these organisations. Often we work with our client organisations for many years, providing a variety of different services as they learn and grow.

My role focuses on research and monitoring for improvement both within CAWST, and for our clients. I support CAWST’s clients in developing their monitoring and evaluation systems so that they can implement effective systems for learning and improvement. This can help them to understand how well they are making progress toward their goals, and to make changes to become more effective.

How did you end up doing such specialised work?
I have always followed my passions, and never had a clear plan of where that would lead me. My interest in water and how water relates to humans and the environment led me to focus on water resources engineering as a career. I worked with drought management and flood management as a engineering consultant in Australia. As I traveled more, I saw how the challenges associated with water are very different around the world and I became interested in water and sanitation issues in developing countries. Eventually, this interest led me to study a Masters degree at the University of Cambridge, where I explored how I could use my engineering skills in this field. I was lucky enough to partner with CAWST for my Masters Thesis project, and my current role grew from there.

What do you love most about your job?
I love the chance to work with a diverse, exciting group of professionals from all over the world. I am inspired by the work that our partners do, and their determination to make a difference to the water and sanitation situation in their communities. It is also a job that aligns with my values, because it is focused on something I believe is worth dedicating my energy to. It’s not easy to find a job like that!

Where have you travelled for work?
I am based in Canada, and have travelled to Zambia, Haiti, Ethiopia and Nepal with CAWST to work with partners in those countries.

What do you love most about travelling for your job?
I love the chance to work closely with individuals who are working on water and sanitation issues in their communities. I learn so much from them and respect the energy and dedication with which they approach their work. Some of my best learning about life has been from these people.

What are your greatest challenges in this position?
Time and prioritising my work! As a not-for-profit, we aspire to do as much as we can, but there is always more demand than we can manage. It can be difficult to step back and take a break, or to say ‘no’ to an opportunity.

The team Britt worked with in Ethiopia,  evaluating one of the education programs for health workers

The team Britt worked with in Ethiopia, evaluating one of the education programs for health workers

In Australia we’ve seen a vast reduction (many billions) in our aid funding. In your view, how highly should aid and international development rate on our country’s list of priorities?
I think that as individuals, and also on a national level, Australians should take an interest in the challenges faced in other parts of the world. We have a responsibility to understand the challenges faced by people who are living in extreme poverty, and we are in a position that we could meaningfully contribute to solutions. We are extremely lucky in Australia, and it can be easy to take the privileges we’ve been given for granted. Whilst Australia is a wealthy country, we also have people living in extreme poverty within Australia, and I think we have a responsibility to prioritise local issues as well.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Still following my passions and interests (wherever that might lead me!)

You’ve lived outside Australia for about three years. (I hope I’ve got that right?) Why do you still call Adelaide home and what do you think makes our state so special?
I grew up in the Adelaide Hills, and every time I come back home I realise what a special place it is. It is the place I grew up, and where most of my immediate family still live. My schooling and university years in Adelaide formed a large part of who I am now. Again and again, networks of friends and colleagues from Adelaide have surfaced as I have travelled abroad. This community strength is very special, and it’s great meeting people from Adelaide who are doing interesting things all over the world.

Tell us a little about your time at Cambridge. What makes the university so special and what would you say to young people who aspire to attend this type of university?
I spent a year studying a Masters degree in Engineering for Sustainable Development at Cambridge. It is an extremely beautiful place, and I felt overwhelmed by its history (the college I attended was founded in the year 1350!). My classmates were from all over the world, in fact out of 50 people we came from 25 different countries, and this was one of the most amazing things about my experience there. Everyone I met was excelling in their field and was clever, driven and committed to learn and to make a difference. It was a very motivating environment! I have never had such a concentration of exciting and exhilarating conversations and have never felt so out of my depth. It’s difficult to explain exactly how it is so special, but by attracting such driven, motivating people, Cambridge has become a hub of ideas and an exciting place to be.

My advice for others would be to search for whatever opportunities are available in your field to assist you in attending this type of university. Then go for it with everything you’ve got. This is an opportunity worth striving for, as it really has the potential to change your life.

When you began your undergraduate studies at the University of Adelaide, did you imagine you could end up in the sort of role you are doing now?
No way! When I first started University, I had never traveled outside of Australia, and would not have believed where my path was leading. I have always just followed my interests, without a clear plan of where that could lead. It is exciting to think about how unpredictable opportunities and life can be.

What advice would you give to engineers who are interested in development?
1. Follow your interests, all the time. You will excel at what you are most interested in;
2. Recognise that as an engineer, you have valuable technical and problem solving skills that can be very useful in development contexts;
3. Also recognise how you may understand very little about the issues faced in developing countries, and always seek to learn as much as you can.
4. Think about the kind of lifestyle that is important for you personally, and how it aligns with a career in development.