Maria Briones: A Quest for Clean Water

The United Nations says more people die annually from contaminated water than war. Polluted water is one of the leading causes of death for children and is wreaking irreversible harm to our world’s ecosystem. University of Rhode Island civil and environmental engineering student Maria Briones (’14) finds that simply unacceptable.

“It’s heartbreaking to me to know there are people that don’t have necessities such as toilets,” Briones says. “I think it’s a basic human right to have access to proper sanitation and clean water.”

The energetic 22-year-old from East Providence, RI has soaked up as much experience as possible in hopes of reducing deaths attributed to polluted water.

In 2011, she traveled to Guatemala with the URI chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World to assist a rural village with developing sanitation infrastructure. Briones assists civil and environmental engineering Assistant Professor Vinka Oyanedel-Craver with clean water research projects and interned with the R.I. Department of Transportation environmental division. She joined the Spanish International Engineering Program to gain the engineering and language skills necessary to work in Spanish-speaking regions, many of which suffer from severe water issues. After she graduates in May 2014, Briones hopes to join the Peace Corps while simultaneously pursuing a master’s in environmental engineering.

“Maria’s determination to use her engineering skills to make this world a better place is truly inspirational,” Oyanedel-Craver says. “When she traveled with me to Guatemala she not only performed engineering work but also prepared civil engineering lessons for local high school students. Students in the community still remember that activity.”

For Briones, the quest to deliver clean water is personal. Her family immigrated to the United States from Ecuador when she was a baby. Although Briones has known only a lifestyle where toilets always flush and clean water always flows from the tap, she frequently thinks of her extended family in South America who views such plumbing as luxuries.

“That could have been me,” Briones says.

Maria Briones in Spain
Maria Briones in San Juan De Gaztelugatxe, Spain.

Her family also lacks access to the educational opportunities available to Briones, who will become just the second member of her family to graduate college. It’s one reason Briones has pushed herself to excel in every fashion. During her academic career, she routinely took challenging course loads. She served as the first woman president of the University’s chapter of Theta Tau, the professional engineering fraternity. She was a resident academic mentor in the Engineering Living Learning Community and serves as an ambassador to foreign exchange students.

“We invest so much in education we have to make the most of it,” she says. “I find it silly when people don’t take every opportunity to make something of themselves because this is a perfect time.”

The opportunities for Briones have extended beyond the Kingston Campus. Through the IEP, Briones spent a year in Spain, studying at the University of Cantabria and then interning at the Center of Studies and Technical Research in Gipuzkoa. At both places, Briones spoke solely in Spanish, a language she never learned growing up despite her Ecuadorian roots. It challenged her, especially speaking rapidly about fluid dynamics in Spanish, but Briones viewed it as another opportunity. It’s a philosophy Briones expects to carry with her wherever she goes.

“People should challenge themselves,” she says. “Sometimes they will fail but if you prevail that’s what sets you apart.”