On February 10, Gabrielle String, assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering and community & population health, represented the College of Health at the highest global level. An environmental health engineer, String presented at the United Nations’ 8th annual International Day of Women & Girls in Science Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City.
Founded by HRH Princess Dr. Nisreen El-Hashemite of Iraq, Executive Director of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT), the globally renowned conference celebrates women in STEM. This year’s theme was I.D.E.A.S.: Innovate, Demonstrate, Elevate, Advance and Sustain.
String spoke to a crowd of about 800 heads of state, diplomats, scientists and researchers, representing 63 countries, during the “Transforming Cities and Infrastructure for Sustainable Future” panel. Also representing Lehigh University were 100 students and faculty, as well as Virginia McSwain, associate professor of physics, who spoke on the “Breaking Boundaries: Space Community I.D.E.A.S. for Sustainable Development” panel.
As an expert in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), String was asked to provide a lens on how water intersects with sustainable cities in the future, she said.
“My specialty area over the last 5 or 6 years of my career has really shifted to working on answering questions related to improving the efficacy and effectiveness of WASH programs in humanitarian response,” String explained, referring to natural disasters, manmade crises and outbreak settings.
Additionally, String spoke about Water Safety Plans, a comprehensive risk management plan that evaluates a water supply from the source up to the point of consumption. Since their implementation in 2004, Water Safety Plans have been adopted by more than 90 countries globally, with more than 65 countries developing law and policy in this area.
“How do we do water safety planning in the context of climate resilience and climate change? And how do we ensure that our water safety planning processes are gender inclusive?” String said, describing issues considered during her presentation.
String was inspired by the day’s focus on opportunities for women in STEM rather than the challenges. “Because there was a global stage, there was a lot of focus on opportunities, and how far we have come, and the amazing advancements we’ve made to promote and support women in STEM,” she said.
While this was String’s first time speaking at the U.N. Headquarters on this type of platform, she is no stranger to U.N. organizations. String’s Ph.D. research on Water Safety Plans was funded by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). Additionally, she has interacted with multiple U.N. organizations. “I interfaced with UNICEF agencies at country office levels or field office levels in the places that I’ve worked,” she said, in addition to several World Health Organization field offices and UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, when working in refugee camp settings.
Gabrielle String’s presentation at the United Nations also represents Lehigh’s deep connection to the organization. Bill Hunter, director, office of fellowship advising and U.N. programs, manages the partnership between Lehigh and the U.N. In 2004, Lehigh became the 6th university in the world to become accredited as a U.N. nongovernmental organization (NGO).
According to Hunter, Lehigh University was a sponsor of the program itself, and he helped to organize String’s involvement.
“She’s a rock star,” Hunter said. “The work that she has done with the United Nations, at the United Nations, around the world, really made it very easy for me to propose her as a candidate for a panelist at the program itself.”
Following String’s speech, engagement with the United Nations is in full swing, as major U.N. speakers will be coming to the College of Health for an upcoming presentation. Additionally, String recently attended the U.N. 2023 Water Conference.
Momentum will only build from there. “I very much look forward to helping the college itself and the faculty and others, to gain this access, build relationships, and watch it really evolve from there,” Hunter said. “It’s only begun.”