Engineer Brinlee Finzel improves communities near and far
It’s not exactly polite dinner conversation, but it’s hard to contain Brinlee Finzel’s enthusiasm about what happens after you — ahem — flush.
“As long as there are people, there will be poop. Without wastewater treatment, the oceans, rivers, and water table would be completely contaminated, resulting in unsafe drinking water and health problems,” said Finzel, a wastewater treatment engineer and 2016 Seattle Pacific University alumna.
As a student, Finzel interned at the West Point treatment facility in Seattle’s Discovery Park.
“That was when I really learned everything about wastewater treatment, and I loved it,” she said. “People don’t think about how critical the wastewater industry is. And there are several renewable resources that come out of it. Processed solid waste is turned into fertilizer and methane gas is reused around the site or pushed onto the natural gas pipeline. Wastewater is cool and useful.”
Finzel arrived at SPU from Brea, California (near Disneyland), intending to major in biology. But a SPRINT trip to Haiti after Finzel’s freshman year showed her the impact of engineering.
“I soon realized this wasn’t just happening in Haiti but all over the world, and there were engineers who were trying to find solutions. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
“We saw women walking toward a village with giant buckets on their heads. Our Haitian host explained they walked four hours a day to get water,” she said. “This was the first time I had been exposed to this global crisis of people not having access to clean water. I soon realized this wasn’t just happening in Haiti but all over the world, and there were engineers who were trying to find solutions. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
After her county internship ended, Finzel sought work with a water-focused engineering firm. Brown and Caldwell’s Seattle office hired her first as an intern and then as a permanent employee after she graduated with a mechanical engineering degree.
Finzel still works for them as an engineer and assistant project manager in the solids/energy group on projects involving gas upgrading, heating, and solids-handling processes.
It’s unusual for young engineers to work closely with clients, but her manager recently asked her to manage an $18 million project during his extended leave. Her supervisor and the client were so impressed with her work that she’s continued to manage the project even after his return.
Finzel’s firm is a corporate sponsor of Water for People, a nonprofit that promotes the development of clean water and sanitation for 4 million people in nine developing countries. Given her passion following her life-changing trip to Haiti, Finzel volunteered to organize numerous Water for People fundraisers at her office and at other firms, as well as acting as the organization’s local liaison and serving on their board. Finzel was recently awarded the group’s Kenneth J. Miller Founders’ award for her efforts.
She is also involved with the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders, with whom she is working to create a community center in Coope, Uganda, with computers and classrooms. Finzel is also engaged with other professional organizations, including American Water Works Association and Pacific Northwest Clean Water.
It’s a lot to balance, a skill Finzel honed at SPU as a studious engineering student who also cared about investing deeply in others. She served as a resident advisor for two years in Ashton and Arnett halls.
“I loved the role I played in the girls’ lives and the ability to be a mentor, friend, teacher, and confidant,” she said. “I hosted weekly milk and cookies socials for my floors, and it was definitely my favorite time of the week — and not just because I love chocolate chip cookies. Having all of the girls together and talking about what was going on in their lives with school, relationships, and home stuff was great. I still have close relationships with several of the girls.”
Then and now, Finzel says her faith grows through service.
“Working in an industry that serves clients, the environment, and the community really expands impact I’m able to make. Whether it’s working on complex wastewater treatment processes for King County or designing a simple well in Uganda, I’m helping to provide a necessary service and improving people’s lives.”