| AWWA Member Spotlight – Andrea Cheng, Ph.D., P.E., City of Chicago
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AWWA Member Spotlight – Andrea Cheng, Ph.D., P.E., City of Chicago

Andrea ChengThis month AWWA recognizes the contributions and accomplishments of our innovative and resilient members, including Andrea Cheng. Together, we are boldly moving forward. We appreciate all that you do as stewards of your community and champions of diversity and inclusion. Sign in to your AWWA account and go to Member Appreciation Month for more information. 

Job title: Commissioner, City of Chicago Department of Water Management

Education: B.S., Civil Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; M.S. and Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, Civil Engineering

How did you get involved in the water sector? I always loved math and science and, coming from a family of teachers, thought I would teach. Then my high school calculus teacher mentioned the field of engineering and I was fortunate to attend a technical summer camp at the University of Illinois. Among the fun of staying in a dorm and water balloon fights, I learned about environmental engineering and it was like a light switch went off. As an undergraduate I interned as an engineer trainee at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. During my graduate studies, I worked as a research assistant, teaching assistant and laboratory manager. I’ve been with the City of Chicago since 2004 and worn many hats, including working with lead and corrosion control, water efficiency, advanced metering, advanced treatment processes, emerging contaminants and Legionella.

Andrea Cheng with co-worker in plantWhat do you enjoy most about working in water? I love the research aspect of solving problems around water. There’s a sense of pride you have in providing a universally-needed, critical service with skill and care. Plus, I love working with people who have the same passion for driving the water industry forward. Water interfaces with so many other industries and careers such as finance, community engagement, law, accounting and construction. It takes a village to operate a water department. (Pictured right, Cheng in a Chicago plant)

What is a key water challenge the City of Chicago is focused on? I think nearly every water system is currently challenged with removing lead from drinking water. We’re also working on regional partnerships with other water suppliers and trying to reframe programs so that our services are benefiting everyone in an equitable way. For this year’s first phase of our lead initiative, we targeted those people most impacted by lead and least able to afford to replace their service lines. We’ll use what we learn from this year’s pilots and our large lead testing program to plan for the next phases. We plan to share this knowledge with other communities.

Andrea meeting with public officialsHow do you plan to build diversity in your workforce? I think we start by reaching out to a more diverse group of people who aren’t aware of the career opportunities in the water sector. This includes water operator training programs and building interest in students at the high school and community college level. The hope is to bring a more educated crop of operators into the department and provide a big win for communities who don’t think of careers in water, including the wastewater side of things. It’s hard to appreciate water at home unless you see how much work it takes to get there. (Pictured left, Cheng meets with public officials)

Andrea with tapping teamWhat challenges did you encounter as a woman in your field? Certain things were definitely challenging back in the day. I had a professor who wouldn’t respond to questions from female students. And it took a bit to convince folks I wasn’t an intern or someone’s daughter – I was an engineer. When I became water quality manager, I was able to hire women into a section that hadn’t historically had any women staff. Now there are four women in that section. I try to be a good example of why people don’t have to think in terms of whether a professional in a job is a woman or a man. I want to be a role model for other women and demonstrate that they don’t need to limit their expectations of where their careers can go. (Pictured at right, Cheng at left with tapping team)

AWWA involvement: Member of AWWA and the Illinois Section since 1997; current member of AWWA Lead & Copper Rule Committee and department liaison for The Water Research Foundation; former Section Trustee and Young Professionals Steering Committee Chair.

Andrea with familyHow has your AWWA involvement has supported your career? My AWWA experience has been essential. There is no better way to network, learn, and empathize with others in your stage of career than through AWWA. Plus, the access to information is really unparalleled. I always encourage younger engineers to get involved with AWWA wherever they can. It’s so beneficial to know who to talk to when you have a question. 

Please describe your family and/or hobbies and interests: I have a wonderful husband who’s a dentist and between us we have five kids between the ages of 9 and 16. There’s never a dull moment in our house and we like to go on adventures as a family. Recently we were in West Virginia and spent time hiking and birding. We also enjoy fossil hunting, board games and playing “Dungeons and Dragons.” (Pictured above, Cheng with her family)

Photos courtesy of Andrea Cheng and City of Chicago