School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Student Profile

Chris Owens
Professional Doctorate - Health-based water treatment targets: Transitioning existing public water supply schemes to a new framework for microbial safety
Mode of study : 
Full-time
Country : 
Australia
Previous Education : 
Bachelor of Applied Science (Honours), Bachelor of Information Technology, Master of Public Health

For Chris Owens, his chosen career path comes with significant responsibility. As a Senior Analyst for Service Planning and Asset Strategy within the Liveable City Solutions team at Sydney Water, Chris understands the immense importance of water as a necessity for life, as well as the central links between water access and public health.

Chris has chosen to advance his knowledge and contribute to the water sector more broadly by undertaking a professional Doctorate in Public Health. He is now studying under the UNSW ‘Future Health Leaders’ program, which is tailored to people already working in health and run in partnership with the workplace. “The Future Health Leaders’ program really suits my circumstances,” says Chris. “Pursuing a doctorate has always been my dream but taking a large chunk of time to do it in the traditional PhD format just wouldn’t have been possible for me.”

Chris’s research is aimed at solving real-world knowledge gaps in water quality management through investigating the implementation of water treatment targets. Currently, the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG) provide a microbial safety target for water treatment based on the absence of pathogens in the water provided to consumers. The ADWG are regularly reviewed and updated to reflect changes and advances in research. A new ‘health-based’ water treatment target has been proposed for inclusion in a forthcoming revision. The new target is based on the estimated public health outcome, and can be indicated by real-time performance of the water treatment plant processes.

“There are few scholarly examples of the implementation of health-based water treatment targets which can be used to inform the overarching water safety policy setting in Australia,” says Chris. Through a series of applied case studies, Chris is exploring the implications of introducing the proposed target. This research is helping to determine how industry should approach implementation, whether the new target materially results in better health outcomes, and how the concept could be extended further. While the proposed target would not replace the current approach (laboratory testing of water quality would continue) Chris’s research is positioned to inform emerging national and potentially international discussion occurring on this topic.

Having worked in the sector for ten years, Chris strongly believes that the most important part of research is its implementation. “The Future Health Leaders program focuses strongly on this – it trains you to be a ‘researching professional’ rather than ‘professional researcher’,” says Chris. “I believe the program will set me up very well to apply the highest level of academic rigour to my professional practice.”

With UNSW recognised as an international leader in water quality research, Chris says that it was the only logical choice for pursuing his Doctorate. He has been particularly impressed by the leadership qualities entrenched through its people.

“My research supervisors, A/Prof Nicholas Osborne from the UNSW School of Public Health and Dr Paul Byleveld from NSW Health are thought leaders in water quality and its connection to public health,” says Chris. “I have been very lucky to have the support that UNSW has provided, including through the professional staff and my fellow candidates from the Future Health Leaders program who are taking this journey with me.”

Image: Chris Owens inspecting the performance of the drinking water supplied to the Greater Sydney region, August 2018. Credit: Michael Young

Profile written by: UNSW Sydney Global Water Institute