DODGING GATORS AND EXPLORING FORGOTTEN UNDERWATER CITIES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN AQUATIC SCIENTIST

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Take Care of Texas
Sarah in a wetsuit, hip deep in water, holding a mud sample

Sarah Whitley dodges alligators and explores forgotten underwater cities. Her job is largely an adventure, with a dose of danger every now and then. What she does—possibly one of the coolest roles at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality—is critical to the agency’s mission of keeping our water clean and safe. Who knew that monitoring water quality could be such a thrill?

We’re celebrating World Water Monitoring Day by speaking with Sarah to find out more about the vital and exciting work she does at TCEQ. 

What is your job title here at TCEQ?

- I am an aquatic scientist in the Surface Water Quality Monitoring (SWQM) program.

What does your job entail?

- A large part of this job is preparing and assessing surface water quality data as part of the Clean Water Act sections 303(d) and 305(b). We also monitor surface water quality, develop surface water quality monitoring and assessment protocols, as well as lead and manage various special studies. We perform technical systems audits for regional SWQM staff to be sure all data is being collected and handled in the same way across the state. Every year we coordinate and host a workshop for all data collectors in the SWQM Program and Clean Rivers Program partners.

How does what you do protect our water supply?team in a creek taking water samples

- The water quality data we receive and assess is compiled in the Texas Integrated Report of Surface Water Quality. This information is publicly available and indicates the water quality status in waterbodies across the state. If water quality is not favorable, the water quality data and information is useful to other TCEQ programs that will take the next steps in restoring the waterbody and/or associated watershed. Special studies that we lead and manage are used to inform water quality standards criteria development and refine biological indices of biotic integrity.

What is your background and education? 

- I have a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis in marine science and a master’s degree in environmental science with focus on fish community ecology.

What’s your favorite part about your job? 

- Although it can be exhausting to wear so many different hats and keep track of various projects, I really enjoy the variety of my job. We can be field sampling somewhere in the state at the beginning of the week, assessing data from a different part of the state by the end of the week, and managing special projects in between. Of course, there’s never a shortage of meetings to attend.

What’s the most shocking thing you’ve ever discovered while doing your job? 

- Aside from sampling in waters with alligators–which was shocking since we initially didn’t know they were visiting–my very first field event on the job was at Lake Arrowhead, near Wichita Falls, towards the end of the recent severe drought. The lake levels were very low and we were able to walk among ruins from the old town of Halsell, a former pioneer settlement. It’s surreal to think about the kind of life that was endured in the early 1900s.

What kind of person would do well in your job? What would you recommend to someone interested in doing your kind of work?

-  Anyone with a passion for science, constant curiosity, and a determination to improve water quality and aquatic life would do well as an aquatic scientist. It is very competitive and most individuals in this field of study these days have a master’s or doctorate degrees, so getting an education is very important and will serve you well in the long-term. When it comes to finding and applying to jobs, I’d say don’t give up, be confident, and be willing to go out of your comfort zone–whether that means moving to a new place or accepting a position that may not have been what you initially had planned to pursue. We all grow more when we are pushed out of the comfort zone!
 

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