Engineering as a Whole
PhD Candidate Isaiah Spencer-Williams thinks of engineering—and life—through a holistic lens
Everything an engineer does, according to Isaiah Spencer-Williams, is for public consumption.
In his case, the statement is quite literal. Spencer-Williams, a fourth-year PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering (CEE) at the University of Pittsburgh, studies the microbial communities living in Pittsburgh’s drinking water as a member of Assistant Professor Sarah Haig’s Research Group at the Swanson School of Engineering.
But it’s also an important value for Spencer-Williams in a metaphorical sense, especially as he considers his evolving career in engineering.
“We as engineers are one of the ultimate public servants, so we need to always be thinking, ‘How does this impact the people I'm designing for?’” he said. “Holistically, how does this impact physical health, mental health, the community?”
Thinking about engineering—and people—holistically has driven Spencer-Williams to not only engage in research that meaningfully impacts the world but also lift up others on the way.
Spencer-Williams has loved water since he was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh. At least, he loved it from a distance, or under a microscope.
“It's funny. I like to say I've been a ‘water boy’ since I was little, but I always qualified that by saying I can't swim—at all,” said Spencer-Williams. “Ever since grade school, I was in the science fairs and everything, and most of my projects had something to do with water in one way or another. I actually was a waterboy and equipment manager for my high school football team—and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, so the title sticks with me in more ways than one.”
When he was in the eighth grade, a teacher suggested engineering as a potential career because of his talents in math and science.
He asked, “What’s an engineer?” She said, “Go look it up.” He liked what he found.
In high school, he joined Pitt’s INVESTING NOW program, a STEM prep program that exposed him to different engineering majors and, most importantly, to the students in Pitt EXCEL, the Swanson School’s undergraduate diversity program.
“That's what really sealed the deal for me. It was seeing other Black and Brown students doing what I wanted to do,” Spencer-Williams recalled. “I remember walking into now-Director Ms. Yvette Moore’s office in 9th grade, introducing myself, and saying, ‘Ms. Moore, I want to be an engineer.’ She laughed at me. She said, ‘I work with college students, how are you sure you want to be an engineer already? You're in ninth grade.’ And I was like, ‘I’m sure, 100 percent.’ That started a life-long mentorship that continues on to this day.”
In addition to working with Spencer-Williams through Investing NOW and connecting him with Pitt EXCEL, Moore worked with him on college applications. When it came time to choose a school, it wasn’t a hard decision.
“I told her I was definitely going to Pitt. I’d been here for four years already, I was in it to win it,” he joked. “Now I always say there would be no soon-to-be Dr. Isaiah Spencer-Williams without Ms. Yvette Moore and all the people at Pitt EXCEL and INVESTING NOW.”
Finding a Flow
Spencer-Williams came into his undergraduate years knowing he was interested in water, so just to make sure, he studied everything else within the CEE curriculum—construction, geotech, and more. By his senior year, he knew he wanted to go to grad school, so he sought out research opportunities that might round out his education.
The opportunity that presented itself was on a wastewater disinfection project in Haig’s lab. The rest, he says, is history.
Today, Spencer-Williams’s research in the Haig Research Group focuses on opportunistic pathogens that can be found in drinking water systems, including Legionella pneumophila, nontuberculous mycobacteria, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. These pathogens can cause disease in immunocompromised people, or those with preexisting pulmonary conditions.
His dissertation looks at how operational changes by water utilities, like a change in corrosion control, infrastructure or disinfection processes, impact the abundance of these microorganisms. Combining this work with expertise in public health, engineering, chemistry, biology, and more could result in design recommendations for minimizing pathogen exposure.
Through his time in Haig’s lab, Spencer-Williams has felt a shift in engineering toward more interdisciplinary teams that aim to provide more well-rounded solutions to society’s biggest challenges.
“The truth is that the curriculum is designed to train you how to be a civil and environmental engineer, so I think it's super beneficial that people are starting to think more holistically about the intersections between their work and someone else's work,” he said. “It's going to take a team of diverse perspectives to address some of these bigger engineering challenges ahead of us.”
As one of just two or three Black students in his honors classes at Central Catholic High School, Spencer-Williams often felt alone. When he found Investing NOW, that isolation began to melt away, as he met a group of Black and Brown engineering students who mirrored his zeal for STEM.
“When I talked to the Pitt EXCEL students, they're regular people, like your older sister, cousin, brother, right? But then you ask them a question about their engineering major, and they could go on for days and days and days about the technical side,” Spencer-Williams remembered. “It showed me there are people like myself out there who are really interested in this stuff, who take it seriously, and who want to contribute to the greater world and have an impact through engineering. To have my world opened up that way was awesome.”
But that is not to say the feeling of being an outsider ever fully disappears, especially for minoritized people in STEM fields. That’s why in 2016 during his undergraduate career, Spencer-Williams co-founded the I.N.N.A.T.E. Project, which was dedicated to providing students a “safe and brave” space to get together and talk about difficult issues in artful ways, whether it be through poetry, song, art, or something else entirely. The group swelled to more than 40 students who would meet regularly at the Corner in West Oakland to share their art—as well as their struggles.
After graduating in 2019 with his BS in civil engineering, Spencer-Williams and the I.N.N.A.T.E. Project then teamed up with artists Natiq Jalil, Crystal Noel Jalil, and Zeal Eva as they founded The Coloured Section Black Artists’ Collective as a means to continue to create spaces in which artists, people in STEM fields, and the general community could connect with one another.
“I’m a big proponent of the idea that everybody can be a poet, that everyone has a poem in them,” said Spencer-Williams. “It’s just about taking the time to tease that poem out.”
Spencer-Williams knows how effective creative expression can be. He started writing poetry in 2012 and performing it on stage during his freshman year at Pitt. He hopes to soon publish a book of his poetry, which often takes inspiration from his research. Spencer-Williams says it not only helps to manage his own mental health but shares an honest, complete view of what it’s like to be a Black engineer by connecting STEM concepts to his lived experience.
“No physical, chemical, or biological parameters they employ are stopping me, / I mean, why else do you think I got my Masters in water quality? / I was raised by the people, for the people…” - Lines from "Infiltration"
“I believe the number one job of an engineer is to be a public servant. Everything you do is for the public, so they deserve to see the whole thing,” he said. “They don't only deserve to see the high points, the awards, the patents, the publications; they deserve to see the low points that happen, too, and how these are low points that I overcame. I think that's what could make engineering seem more accessible to more people.”
The Future Dr. Isaiah Spencer-Williams
Spencer-Williams considers himself lucky to study engineering. Now, seeing first-hand the importance of bringing together diverse viewpoints to solve challenges, he is determined to pay it forward and encourage everyone to engage with STEM. After graduation, he intends to pursue a postdoctoral research position and, eventually, become a professor, so he can continue to live out those values.
“I was raised with the belief that ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” he said. “I want to be able to give back, inspire and equip the next generation of engineers with not only the fundamental engineering skills to be these formidable engineers—the ones who go out and create the patents, and the processes, and all that—but also to equip them with the humility to recognize that you are privileged to have this education, and it's up to you to use that privilege to impact the world.”
If you’d like to stay connected with Isaiah, please feel free to connect on Twitter (@FutureDrSpencer) or LinkedIn!