A legend born from the microbial world

July 29, 2019

Water Research Australia Research Manager, Dr Christobel Ferguson, has spent over 30 years in the microbial world – fascinated by microorganisms and their ability to grow and adapt to all sorts of environments.

Starting as a holiday temp with Sydney Water in 1986, Christobel’s career in the water industry has spanned multiple research laboratories from utilities to pharmaceutical companies. Upon completing three years in a micro laboratory with Reckitt and Colman Pharmaceuticals, she returned to Sydney Water for six years working on the Cleanwaterways Program, which involved evaluating stormwater and sewage contamination of the environment across the whole of Sydney. This work culminating in a Master of Environmental Science.

Since then Christobel has worked in a variety of research management roles for companies big and small, some of which have taken her around the world – all to do with her passion for microbiology. Most recently Christobel joined the WaterRA team as a Research Manager working with water utilities, regulators and researchers to bring together projects that fill the knowledge gaps in the water sector.

Christobel, who will be recognised at the upcoming AWA NSW Legends of Water 2019 evening, discusses the highlights of her ‘legendary’ water career below.


You’ve worked on some iconic water research throughout your career, what projects do you still get a thrill out of being a part of?

I’m still fascinated by microorganisms and their ability to grow and adapt to all sorts of environments. There is still so much to learn about the microbial world and how it interacts with and drives our ecosystems. It does concern me that we still have a heavy reliance on indicator bacteria to predict water quality. I hope that we can soon wean ourselves off E. coli as the main predictor of microbial water safety and start using multiple parameters and data collected and interpreted in real-time to better monitor, predict and report on water quality.

Tell us about your work with WaterRA.

I’m currently working with water utilities, regulators and researchers to bring together projects that fill the knowledge gaps in the water sector. WaterRA is the leading organisation in Australia that brings together all the relevant parties to progress research that is focused on solving the complex problems facing the water sector. It is great to be part of this “big team” delivering applied research outcomes and innovation for the water industry.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

The delivery of a suite of pathogen projects for the Sydney Catchment Authority (now WaterNSW) was a highlight. This was in 2001-2005, soon after the Sydney water incident and there was an imperative to understand the fate and transport of pathogens through the catchment and to the reservoir.

Working with Assoc. Prof. Barry Croke to create one of the first pathogen models for catchments was a lot of fun as getting the data involved lots of poop work! This work involved collecting different types of animal poop with Martin Krogh, making artificial cow pats in cheesecake tins with Nanda Altavilla, Dr Cheryl Davies and Chris Kaucner, and putting them out in paddocks and creating artificial rainfall on them. It might not sound like fun, but it was!

Where do you think the greatest progress has been made in the water industry throughout your career?

I think the biggest change I’ve seen has been the concept of building quality into the product by protecting the source and using multiple barriers rather than just treating it at the plant. It was almost a reversal of what the industry had been doing to that point and combined with integrated water management it means that water businesses are now much more proactively and holistically managing their water supplies.

What advice do you have for those making a start in the water industry?

Be open to learning, volunteer to get involved and use water industry networks to meet people and find opportunities to make a difference. The complex challenges we are facing are going to require collaboration across multiple disciplines to solve. The most interesting projects are the ones that bring together these different capabilities and skill sets to solve tricky problems and that take you out of your comfort zone.

Where do you think the industry is headed in the future?

In developed nations I think the integration of digital and the use of satellites and sensors throughout the water supply chain combined with machine learning and algorithms to interpret data in real-time will be a step change in management of water supplies and assist us face the challenges of climate change.

At the same time, we still see developing countries struggling to provide safe water and sanitation to rapidly expanding populations and I think that we will have to develop better governance, policy and planning frameworks to cope with these challenges through the provision of decentralised water and sanitation systems.