Coming from a family background in engineering, Laura Burke says her father is her hero and was the first person to teach her about the importance of making decisions based on evidence and facts, and to be ready and willing to stand over those decisions. And, she has a huge love for bridges, knitting, and ... talking about knitting.
Burke is the director general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She was appointed to the position in 2011 and has served as a director within the EPA since 2004. She is the chair of the European Environment Agency management board and member of the Climate Change Advisory Council.
Laura Burke, director general, Environmental Protection Agency
Prior to joining the EPA, Burke worked in the private sector. She is a graduate chemical engineer of University College Dublin (UCD), holds an MSc from Trinity College Dublin, is a Fellow of the Institute of Engineers of Ireland and is a chartered director. In 2016 she was awarded the UCD Engineering Graduates Association Distinguished Graduate Award.
I try to make the best decisions I can on a daily basis and to be conscious of my impact on the environment. We are very conscious of food waste in our house, trying to only buy food that we will use, though that is not too difficult in a household with three hungry teenagers!
We are very conscious of wasting energy, only heating rooms that we are using. We also have reduced our meat intake, having a meal or two a week that is not meat based. I bought a plug-in hybrid car a number of years ago and that works well for me and I always enjoy seeing how it has charged up!
The next car will definitely be fully electric as the technology has come on so much in the past couple of years. We also did some work on our house, improving insulation, getting rid of the open fires and also removing drafts by rehanging windows and replacing a number of doors. We have not gone down the deep retrofit option yet but will need to look at that in the coming years.
I think that it is important to understand that people's circumstances are different as are the options open to them, including whether you live in a rural or urban environment.
#WorldWildlifeDay and one of the winning photos from the EPA's internal competition! Hugh Feeley works with the Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Team and noticed this beautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) along the Aghalona River, Co Carlow
The EPA has produced a guide on ‘What can I do about climate change? Top 5 Things', which is available on our website. This is a good menu of options that can help the environment and also your pocket too.
All these little changes add up, and you can start small with things like draught-proofing your home, walking or cycling one trip a week, planning your weekly shop to avoid food waste, or repairing things to help us all move towards a circular economy.
My father and grandfather were engineers, as is my elder sister, so engineers were all around me! As I was really interested in science in school, even moving school to progress science subjects, engineering was a natural choice for me.
That said, even being from an engineering family I would still say that I didn’t have a really good sense of what engineering involved and where it would lead me, which was industrial sales, waste management and ultimately environmental management.
I would not point to a particular mentor but I have learnt from everybody I have worked for and with over my career. As I have progressed through my career I have taken experiences and been able to use approaches and ways of working that I found worked well for me. I continue to learn from people I engage with on an everyday basis.
I think that the sustainability agenda has really come to the fore and the role of engineers in providing sustainable solutions in addressing, for example, the climate change emergency.
The EPA carried out 1,295 inspections at EPA licensed sites during 2021, a 19% increase compared with 2020
Over the last number of years I have seen environmental issues move from being niche to being at the core of decisions made by the political system, by businesses, by communities and individuals on a daily basis.
It is really important that all third-level institutions proactively include sustainability in engineering programmes – which will also attract young people who want to make a real difference in addressing environmental challenges – into the engineering profession
I think there is a responsibility on all engineers, but particularly female engineers, to highlight the wide range of opportunities, nationally and internationally in the engineering profession.
Engineering gives a great base for such a wide range of jobs in the public and private sector, and the structured thinking that engineering teaches brings benefits to all roles.
When I left university in the early 1990s there were really limited job opportunities but I was able to start in industrial sales, move to waste management and project management in that sector and on to the EPA, in environmental management – these were all really diverse but interesting and challenging roles.
Communication is critical and although I think there have been significant improvements in communicating what engineers do and their role in society, I think there is a responsibility on us all to be more proactive in communicating our roles and the impact we have with our work.
As part of its enforcement activities during 2021, the EPA carried out 48 inspections at unauthorised peat extraction sites
In the EPA, over the last number of years, we have really focused on making our information more understandable and accessible and to use ‘plain English’ and ultimately thinking of the audience, the message we want to communicate and the action we want taken as a result.
Although we still have a way to go on this journey, it is critically important, and I think that engineers and scientists really need to recognise that in order to deliver for society and the public we need to be able to explain ourselves in a clear, concise and transparent way and find better ways to communicate our messages.
My engineering hero would have to be my father, who was the director of engineers in the Irish Army. He travelled the world with the UN from the Congo, Cyprus, the Lebanon and others with the aim of supporting peacekeeping efforts across the globe.
He was the chief engineering officer in the UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon and as a child it was inspirational to see how he dealt with all stakeholders in the conflict in a clear, transparent and objective way. He would have been the first person to teach me of the importance of making decisions based on evidence and facts and to be ready and willing to stand over those decisions.
Probably my grandfather who ran away to join the British army when he was 15 to fight in the First World War. Although he survived it he died very young and so I never met him.
When I think of myself at that age or look at my teenage children, the thought of running away to join a war is completely unfathomable and so I would have been fascinated to meet him and hear of his experiences.
Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge
I always admire bridges, whether that be the new New Ross Bridge in Co Wexford, or the Mary McAleese bridge in Meath or the Vasco di Gamma in Lisbon (although myself and my husband did end up driving on it once by mistake and it is a very long time before you can turn around!). Bridges connect people and places which is now more important than ever.
I have a number of books currently, from Kate Mosse (The Burning Chambers) and a book on knitting, my new hobby, Éanna Ní Lamhna (Our Wild World). Eanna was on the EPA advisory committee for a number of years, and not only is he a great scientist but, also, is an example of how to communicate with infectious enthusiasm and in a clear and understandable way.
Keep an open mind and be willing to change direction. It is really important to find an area where you really enjoy what you work at so that you bring your best to it and get the best out of it also.
I have no idea. Engineering is so broad and it opens up so many opportunities. I do not do what might be considered in a narrow sense, typical engineering work and probably never have – but I believe my engineering background still supports my work every day.
That is what is great about the EPA, there is no typical day! On any day I could be engaged on discussions on EPA work on water quality, climate change, waste and the circular economy or monitoring air quality. Equally we could be looking at Citizen Science, such as the Clean Air Together Project, in partnership with the Environmental Education Unit of An Taisce or the impact of radon gas on people's health in Ireland.
The EPA is an environmental regulator and as a board we make decisions on environmental licence applications and we have a wide range of enforcement functions including licence enforcement, regulator of Irish Water and working with local authorities in relation to their environmental functions.
In addition, the EPA has a research budget of about €10m per annum to support environmental research in the areas of climate change, circular economy, delivering a healthy environment and protecting and restoring our natural environment.
Equally I could be engaging on our corporate functions such as ICT, where we significantly invest to improve our services, or workforce planning or communications. No day is the same, and there is a great diversity in my work.
My mother always encouraged us not to worry about things over which you cannot influence. We can all get stressed about things that might happen when we are better focusing on enjoying the moment as much as we can. The other piece of advice is that ‘this too will pass’ – nothing is forever, the good and the bad, and it is important to remember this and keep things in perspective.
My recent hobby is knitting and to quote my daughter, I like knitting and talking about knitting! I also love to walk and relax with family and friends over a good coffee. Wexford, where I live, is blessed with great places to walk, from forests and beaches, and also has wonderful coffee shops.