School of Engineering


Dr Katelyn Johnson celebrates being UKZN’s first Coloured female Civil Engineering PhD graduate.

Trail-Blazer Investigates Impact of Climate Change on Hydraulic Structures

When Ms Katelyn Johnson registered for a BSc degree in Civil Engineering at UKZN way back in 2009 she was the first and only Coloured woman to do so.

Fast forward to today, and she has now just become the first Coloured South African female to graduate with a PhD in Civil Engineering at the University.

Having worked as a civil engineer for four years with some experience in flood management, Dr Johnson completed her MSc in Civil Engineering part-time before starting postgraduate studies through the Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR) in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Of particular interest to her were the research topics in the National Flood Studies Programme led by her supervisor, centre director Professor Jeff Smithers.

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.

‘Katelyn developed new regionalised methods for the estimation of extreme design rainfall and Probable Maximum Precipitation events in South Africa, which are required for the design and flood risk assessment of hydraulic structures,’ said Smithers. ‘She investigated and developed methods to account for climate change on these values. Trends in observed rainfall data were investigated and new knowledge on the performance of potential climate drivers in non-stationary design rainfall models was generated in order to account for the potential impacts of climate change.’

Johnson said she was motivated by her experience in industry working with stormwater management design manuals which led her to want to understand how the design guidelines were developed and could be improved.

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

Johnson has worked as a lecturer in UKZN’s School of Engineering specialising in fluid mechanics and engineering hydrology since 2017. With her PhD behind her, she plans to continue in academia, focusing on student engagement in civil engineering and hydrology, thus helping to mould the next generation of practitioners and academics.

In her spare time, she enjoys watercolour painting and teaches yoga.

She thanked Professor Derek Stretch for supporting her in her transition from industry back to academia; Smithers who guided and motivated her as a researcher and young academic; and her two co-supervisors, Professor Roland Schulze and Dr Thomas Kjeldsen who were gentle guides along her journey. Dr Elena Friedrich was a compassionate mentor.

‘I would also like to thank my mother who has always encouraged my academic aspirations,’ said Johnson.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini