Senior Spotlight: Somto Uyanna Builds Communities

Nigerian-born Somto Uyanna ’18 works to bring cleaner water and smarter infrastructure to the developing world.
—Photo courtesy of Somto Uyanna ’18

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Somto Uyanna ’18 was struck by how dramatically infrastructure shapes people’s lives.

“I felt the burden of roads in poor condition, inadequate power supply, and frequent flash flooding, among other infrastructural problems,” she said. “But what’s worse is that my experience was better than that of most Nigerians.”

Intent on applying her passion for math and science to deliver concrete improvements to communities like her hometown, Uyanna came to Columbia to become a civil engineer.

“I like to think of civil engineering as the most social of the engineering fields, because we create and maintain physical society,” said Uyanna, who is also minoring in earth and environmental engineering. “It’s centered on the provision of clean air, water, shelter, and transportation—necessary components of a thriving society.”

Inspired by her studies with Professor Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, Uyanna concentrates in water-related issues like flood control, drought preparedness, and providing a potable supply. In her sophomore year, she worked on a project developing a flood risk insurance index to help the Lagos State Government determine payouts. Last fall, she collaborated with teammates to design a direct potable reuse facility to supplement the current supply from depleting groundwater resources in Fresno, California.

“The project exposed me to the process of making design choices based on reconciling the needs of the community with available resources and prevailing codes and standards,” Uyanna said. “It made me feel like I was finally becoming a real engineer.”

For her senior design project, Uyanna has been collaborating with teammates on designing a luxury apartment complex for a formerly industrial waterfront site on Staten Island, focusing on the geotechnical aspects of building on soft soil in an area prone to seismic activity. The team hopes that the project will help spur new development along Staten Island’s North Shore.

She has also contributed to developing social infrastructure for African students at Columbia and around the world. Uyanna was a vice president of the African Development Group, providing opportunities for students to work with organizations in Africa, and is currently working on a book drive for low-income communities. She helped organize the annual Columbia University African Economic Forum, hosted by the business school, and served as head of the African Students Association’s Afropolitan Planning Committee, putting together an annual showcase of diverse cultures from across the continent.

After graduating this spring, Uyanna plans to either pursue a master’s in water resources engineering or go straight to work in the field. In the long term, she hopes to consult with municipalities and government agencies in Africa and around the world.

“Everyone should have access to basic amenities and be able to live comfortably,” she said. “Engineering is the means through which I can contribute solutions to some of the issues that matter most to me.”

by Jesse Adams

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