Wentworth woman breaks ground

Dr Katelyn Johnson is the first coloured woman to graduate with a PhD in civil engineering from UKZN. | Supplied

Dr Katelyn Johnson is the first coloured woman to graduate with a PhD in civil engineering from UKZN. | Supplied

Published May 11, 2024


Durban — Katelyn Johnson’s mother was diagnosed with cancer during her PhD studies and, being the only child of a single parent, she had to take care of her mom.

However, it did not derail her ambitions and this week she graduated with a doctorate in civil engineering from UKZN, the first coloured woman to do so.

Johnson’s PhD research involved estimating extreme rainfalls for guidance when designing and constructing hydraulic structures such as dams, culverts and stormwater drainage to withstand flood events under a changing climate.

“With the magnitude and frequency of extreme rainfall and flood events changing in South Africa and globally, it’s important to understand the impact on existing infrastructure as well as the design of new infrastructure,” she said.

Johnson said climate change had an impact on the design of future infrastructure because engineers had to update the guidelines and the data they used to design for the future, while considering that future conditions could also change.

However, there were a number of changes which were not necessarily only related to the weather or the changing climate that could affect floods.

“There are socio-political factors of people living in flood-prone areas, like along riverbanks, that are obviously affected by the floods. There are infrastructure maintenance issues, especially within eThekwini Municipality, that exacerbate flooding.

“There are changes in land use, urbanisation and many other factors that contribute to changes in floods apart from the changes in the climate. It’s a combination of factors and that’s what makes it tricky in the design space, because it’s not just as simple as redesigning for this much rainfall.”

Johnson said in 2008 when she decided to study civil engineering, it was unusual for a woman, especially a woman of colour, to enter the field.

Dr Katelyn Johnson is the first coloured woman to graduate with a PhD in civil engineering from UKZN. | Supplied

Most people expected those with science subjects to study medicine or perhaps chemical engineering, because unlike civil engineering it wasn't “dirty” or male-dominated.

“I chose civil engineering because it has a lot of different sub-disciplines. There are different opportunities for career paths, and at the time there was a scholarship available for civil engineering,” Johnson said.

She said her achievements were significant because they broke the norms of what’s acceptable in the coloured community.

“When I say acceptable, I mean, what’s good enough. Back in the day, it was weird for you to actually even want to go and study at a university. It was viewed as ‘why are you trying to do more? Why are you trying to be better?’ It’s not normal for coloured people to want to achieve more in the academic space.”

She said this could be attributed to historical situations where exposure and opportunities for studying were limited. However, raising the bar showed it was possible to achieve more.

Johnson also faced the predicament of not being black enough, even though she is a woman of colour.

“You’re not black enough to fit into the quotas or the opportunities that are available for (non-white) black people. I was overlooked for a few opportunities because, although not explicitly stated, I discovered it’s because I was not black enough to be supported under certain schemes.”

Another barrier was that many young people were keen to get a job as soon as they finished school because they needed to support their family, something prevalent in non-white communities.

She has challenged people to write their own story and “not live according to a template”.

Independent on Saturday