An engineer who does not shy away from difficult conversations

Bernelle Verster is a biochemical engineer talking about her industry and the value of volunteerism.

Frustration seems an unconventional motive for getting things done, but then Bernelle Verster is not someone who fits into societal boxes.

Originally from Benoni, Bernelle is a biochemical engineer with an interest in sewerage systems; she makes her own dresses and seldom sees the need for shoes.

“I love biology and water, but I am driven by frustration that things don’t work as well as I like them to,” she says. “Whenever I need to learn how to make something work better, I generally start volunteering in that area. It’s cheap and you meet really good people that way.”

So, from this place of frustration, Bernelle organised a TEDx CapeTown talk -to learn how to tell stories and get people excited about water. She also organised DebConf – the open source Debian project conference in 2016 in Cape Town, to learn about open source, and hardware.

“And then I got fat and needed to run; so I launched Zandvlei parkrun. This had me end up as chair of the Zandvlei Protected Areas Advisory Committee (ZPAAC),” she says.

Bernelle has a PhD in bioprocessing from UCT and describes her academic interest as being wastewater biorefineries.

“I am a researcher at UCT, looking broadly at water-sensitive settlements -how can we thrive in semi-arid environments specifically. I am also looking at resource recovery from wastes, especially sanitation.”

Asked how she would like to be remembered, Bernelle says: “I think as being brave, authentic. Someone summed me up last week as being able to have the difficult conversations. I like that.”

Cape Town became her home because this is where her supervisor lived. Professor Sue Harrison is at the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) and the Future Water Institute, both at UCT. The institute addresses the issues of water scarcity in South Africa, largely through water-sensitive design.

“Prof Sue Harrison is the only person in the world that gets how I think,” says Bernelle. “Even now, after 11 years of working with her, I have not found anyone whose thinking I value more.”

Bernelle has built her home here, but admits to finding Cape Town very difficult.

“Especially as an Afrikaans person. I find the university very difficult, especially now as they grapple, inadequately, but bravely, with transformation.

“So I don’t call it home. I don’t like it here. I call the inside of my house home, so it was important for me to like where I live.

“I also volunteer because that creates the communities I want to surround myself with.”

Volunteering is important to Bernelle, who considers it to be the cornerstone of democracy.

“We volunteer because we believe in something bigger than ourselves, and this big goal gives incentive to see past our differences. It exposes us to people and points of views we wouldn’t otherwise come across, and it makes connections that complement working or family life,” she says.

And it was volunteering that drove home to her what she terms the inadequacy of what engineers do.

“I’m still an engineer at heart, but volunteering has influenced my work in profound ways.”

She says engineers like to think they design great systems and that it’s the most efficient way of doing things, and they feel frustrated that other people don’t appreciate their approach.

“But in seeing the consequences of these engineered systems on people, the way that Cape Town is still so divided, and seeing the environment (which just cannot absorb our mistakes any more) have forced me to ask some very tough questions, and has changed everything about how I approach everything.”

She says volunteering has also given her respect and appreciation for just how complex a city is.

“The linear way cities are managed is woefully inadequate, but I can see why it is that way. This has shifted my work to look at how we can change that, and importantly how we can get people to become more involved. People want to be involved, but a lot of things need to function in a healthy way to allow their involvement.” She says starting new things makes her happy. She likes creating things, having the difficult conversations, especially when people say it can’t be done. But once the new thing is up and running -she wants to hand it over to someone else.

“It makes me happy to have a bunch of people who didn’t see eye to eye complete a fantastically tricky project successfully. I think magic happens when we play at the edge of chaos,” Bernelle says.

“I think we do all the things we do because we’ve lost connection, to ourselves more than anything else. Consumerism, addiction, this need to work so hard to buy stuff. Really, to be honest, I think everyone should have a nervous breakdown; it’s the best way to rediscover yourself and what really matters. It’s a real eye-opener.”

Does Bernelle believe we are capable of rising competently to the challenges of our stressed natural resources – enough so to ward off disaster?

“Yes and no. To be honest, we have it in us, but I think before it will really become a serious movement a lot of people are going to die. I just can’t see it going any other way. And it will be from the bottom up.”