STEM Science Prize for Women Success Story
Transforming Communities Through Sustainable Waste Treatment:
The Inspiring Journey of Dr. Neni Sintawardani
Winner, Senior Scientist Category, 2021 STEM Science Prize for Women
“The sanitation problem is a societal issue that has complex dimensions, with women and children in underserved communities in the ASEAN region being the most affected,” notes Dr. Neni. “Empowering women and children as “agents of change” capable of quickly influencing and helping change perceptions about hygiene and sanitation is critical.”
In the heart of Indonesia, Dr. Neni Sintawardani, a distinguished senior researcher at the Research Center for Environmental and Clean Technology within the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) of Indonesia, has dedicated her illustrious career to the advancement of community sanitation and wastewater treatment. Her pioneering research focuses on harnessing anaerobic processes to treat municipal solid waste and agro-industrial runoff, significantly improving the lives of countless individuals. Dr. Neni’s journey, characterized by her relentless pursuit of excellence, serves as an inspiring testament to the transformative power of dedication and innovation.
A Journey of Dedication and Excellence
Dr. Neni’s remarkable journey in the field of waste treatment began with a five-year stint as a Visiting-Researcher at the Institute of Technology, Federal Research Center for Agriculture, in Braunschweig, Germany. During her time in Germany, she explored the application of fixed-bed anaerobic reactors for agricultural waste treatment, a crucial step in her path to becoming a leading expert in the field. Her doctoral degree, earned from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, was awarded in recognition of her pioneering work in this vital domain.
Seizing an Unexpected Opportunity
A distinguished scholar with numerous published papers and decades of experience, Dr. Neni’s discovery of the Underwriters Laboratories-ASEAN-U.S. Science Prize for Women competition was almost serendipitous. A WhatsApp conversation with a male colleague unveiled the competition’s “clean technology” theme for 2021, a subject that deeply resonated with her life’s work. With just two days left before the application deadline, Dr. Neni made a pivotal decision to apply, and the outcome was nothing short of exceptional.
Transformative Research Insights
Dr. Neni’s research endeavors are centered on liquid waste treatment, the utilization of treated water, and the enhancement of community sanitation. Her extensive experience has shed light on the most significant challenge in community waste treatment: the creation of a sustainable technological solution that the community can autonomously manage, adapting it to local conditions. She recognizes the complex dimensions of the sanitation problem, especially its disproportionate impact on women and children. Dr. Neni sees these individuals as essential “agents of change,” capable of rapidly influencing and reshaping perceptions about hygiene and sanitation.
Working alongside her colleagues, Dr. Neni developed a system to efficiently process wastewater into valuable products that can benefit the community. They designed and installed an anaerobic multi-stage fixed bed reactor capable of processing highly organic polluted tofu wastewater, effectively reducing environmental pollution and creating biogas as a by-product. This biogas now serves as a sustainable cooking fuel for 88 households in the village, significantly reducing their reliance on wood and LPG. Remarkably, the community members have progressively taken over the management of this sustainable plant.
To mitigate the discharge of domestic waste into local rivers, Dr. Neni’s team also developed a composting toilet system, installed in an elementary school in Bandung, West Java. This innovative system not only produces fertilizer and compost but also effectively treats polluted water and wastewater, thereby reducing water pollution in rivers, enhancing water quality, increasing water use efficiency, and safeguarding freshwater supplies.
The 2021 Science Prize for Women Competition
Winning the Science Prize for Women in 2021 invigorated Dr. Neni’s resolve to continue her work, even as she approaches retirement age. The recognition she received through this prestigious award has inspired her to keep working alongside her younger colleagues, imparting her wisdom and experience to the next generation of scientists. Dr. Neni proudly acknowledges LIPI’s to BRIN’s commitment to promoting gender equality in research opportunities but emphasizes the persistent gender imbalance in STEM fields, encouraging her female colleagues to pursue process engineering research and enhance their competence and competitiveness.
Today, Dr. Neni remains steadfast in her mission to advance waste treatment technologies and actively promotes community participation to ensure the sustainability of these innovations. She places great importance on educating communities about building business models based on new technology that can benefit local communities. Dr. Neni’s vision extends far beyond Indonesia, emphasizing culturally sensitive approaches to water use and sanitation throughout the ASEAN region. Her tireless efforts continue to pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future, leaving an indelible mark on communities and individuals throughout the region. With the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), her commitment to fostering sustainable change remains an inspiration to all.
Aligned with the U.S. strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) maintains its commitment to partnering with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This collaboration aims to promote prosperity, security, economic inclusion, women’s empowerment, and good governance. The Underwriters Laboratories – ASEAN – U.S. Science Prize for Women competition, now in its tenth year, underscores the invaluable contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) research and highlights the enduring public-private sector partnership with ASEAN, USAID, and UL Research Institutes. Since 2014, the competition to date has attracted 418 total applicants from ASEAN countries and awarded $240,000 in cash prizes to 23 winners and honorable mentions reaffirming the significance of women in advancing sustainable societal improvements through science and technology expertise.