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PROFILE: From veterinary medicine to sewage treatment, here’s how Christen “fell in love” with her unexpected career

A former lab analyst and now Wastewater Plant Operator, Christen Wood’s career path has led her from veterinary medicine to sewage treatment. We asked her about opportunities in Wastewater Operations.

How did you get into wastewater?

I sort of fell into it! The local paper ran a column on the “brain drain” in Ashtabula, why we weren’t able to get qualified candidates into jobs there. I wrote a thank-you letter to the editor for covering the topic, and as soon as the letter ran, the Ashtabula wastewater treatment plant called me and said, “We need you to apply now.”

I had studied biology. Once I got into wastewater, I found it involved biology, chemistry, and physics. It was just a really good fit for me. Once I got into a lab position, I sort of missed being in touch with the plants. So I gave Operations a try, and fell in love with it. 

Christen leans against a stack of
materials and manuals operators
need to know before being set loose
to work at the Southerly plant.

What is it like training to be an operator?

You start by studying the units at the plant. We have seven units at Southerly. You pick one, and go through on-the-job training. You also have to pass three operator exams: Class I, II, and III. The Class I was especially intimidating. I have a master’s degree, and these tests were the hardest I’ve ever taken.

What helped you early on?

In my early lab experience, every morning I would go out to get samples. I was out in the plant, smelling the plant. If you talk to the old-timers, that’s how they did it. There were no numbers. That’s a good skill to have as an operator, to be able to notice little things like that.

How did you know this was the right path for you?

I was actually excited to come to work. In other jobs I had, it was sheer drudgery. In wastewater, I actually engaged in what was going on around me. It only took me maybe six weeks before I knew I’d be doing wastewater for a long time.

What advice do you give?

When I participate in outreach, I freely tell people how much money I make. I compare it to other jobs they might be more familiar with, and they start to realize that our industry is a career option, not just a job you take until something else comes along.

A little bit of what I do is like detective work. If you enjoy looking for clues and putting together the big picture, Operations is a great way to do that.

What’s the biggest misconception about the work you do?

It’s not glamorous. My mom doesn’t tell her friends that I work in sewage. I studied veterinary medicine at a top private university, so maybe that has something to do with it, but also I think there’s a stigma out there.

But I am proud of what I do. When I talk to people, and I tell them how we clean wastewater and make it safe for the environment, and they ask questions, it is really cool. The fact that we can take sewage and turn it into clean water is incredible.

You may know Christen as @sewer_chic. She also inspired and stars in several of our Quick Clips video series available on our YouTube channel. This interview originally appeared in our Clean Water Works technical magazine, 2014 edition.