JTC 24: Worms, Water and Winning

Lilly Bray's showcase on a national stage leads to career path in sustainable urban development

A young woman wearing a blue dress leans against a white column on a porch.

This story is part of the 2024 Journey to Commencement series, which celebrates the pinnacle of the academic year by highlighting University of Mississippi students and their outstanding academic and personal journeys from college student to college graduate.

Lilly Bray graduated from high school thinking she might be interested in a career in dermatology, but once she arrived at the University of Mississippi, she shifted her focus to civil engineering. It's a change inspired partly by an aunt's suggestion and partly by her own strengths.

"I knew that I was math- and science-brained, and one day, my aunt, on a whim, suggested I look into civil engineering because it combined a lot of my interests," the Tupelo native said.

Engineering is a demanding academic major, but Bray did not tackle her tough coursework alone. Her college experience was shaped by her friendship with Georgia Gooch, a fellow civil engineering major and her roommate at Kappa Delta sorority.


Lilly Bray (left) and Georgia Gooch have fun on senior bid day earlier this spring. Submitted photo

The roommates often studied and worked on projects together.

"It took away a lot of anxiety because we were still in these hard classes, and if I didn't understand something, she would," Bray said.

Their partnership allowed them to tackle group projects seamlessly and navigate their academic responsibilities with less stress.

"I would not have had the same experience without her," Bray said. "It was invaluable to have someone to be confused with."

This support gave her confidence to take on new challenges, culminating on a national stage, at the 33rd WERC Environmental Design Contest at New Mexico State University. Bray was the only junior on an Ole Miss team that also included two seniors and two master's students.

"Lilly's knowledge, dedication and personality were well integrated with the team," said Matteo D'Alessio, assistant professor of civil engineering.

Tasked to come up with innovative engineering solutions for a pressing environmental issue, the Ole Miss team wowed the judges, bringing home the prestigious Freeport-McMoRan Innovation in Sustainability Award. Their project, focused on sustainable wastewater management, was designed for scalability to serve low-income communities effectively.


Lilly Bray (left) and fellow Ole Miss engineering students Georgia Gooch, Abbey Montgomery and Katie Payne take a field trip to B&B concrete in Tupelo. Submitted photo

The team developed a low-cost filtration system using earthworms to enhance bacterial removal from water, a novel approach that caught the attention of the environmental engineering community.

"A large factor of the competition was that the treatment system needed to be affordable," Bray said. "It opened my eyes to the possibility that my skills could be used to promote equity."

The judges praised the Ole Miss team for their clear and confident delivery, as well as the originality of their design.

The accolades helped validate Bray's decision to pivot to engineering and her ability to thrive within it.

"I was really glad I got to participate," she said. "It made me confident because I had to give the presentation, and we ended up winning."

As Bray prepares to transition from Ole Miss to the professional world, she looks forward to her new role at LandDesign in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, she will contribute to engineering design projects focused on developing sustainable urban spaces, including neighborhoods and community centers.

"I am ready to use my skills to produce high quality work and promote equity," she said. "I hope to grow both as an engineer and a person for many, many years."

See more photos from Lilly Bray's Journey to Commencement


Kayla VonBurg-King, School of Engineering



May 12, 2024


Lilly Bray

A young woman in a pale orange dress holds a trophy.

Lilly Bray shows off the trophy for the Freeport-McMoRan Innovation in Sustainability Award, which the Ole Miss team won at the WERC Environmental Design Contest at New Mexico State University in April 2023. Submitted photo

A young woman wearing a bright yellow vest stands in a construction site.

Lilly Bray works on a construction site for a summer project with LandDesign in Charlotte, North Carolina. Submitted photo

A young woman stands with her parents outside.

Lilly Bray (right) spends time with her parents at a parents' weekend event at Ole Miss. Submitted photo

A young woman in a blue dress sits on a concrete porch, leaning against a white column.

As Lilly Bray graduates with her degree in civil engineering, she is preparing to start her career at LandDesign in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she hopes to contribute to engineering design projects focused on developing sustainable urban spaces. Photo by Lindsey Meisenheimer