Meet our Industry Person of the Week: Rachel Lee! We were so lucky to first “e-meet” Rachel online when she participated in the International Women’s Day Twitter Chat, and then we had the great fortune of meeting her in person at the Texas Water conference in April. Rachel is a Manager of Nutrient Recovery Solutions with Ostara Technologies and is very passionate about the wastewater industry. Read what she had to share:
Q. How did you get started working in the Industry?
Rachel: I always knew I wanted to go into engineering, but I didn’t have a vision of what that might look like when I entered university. I ended up choosing Civil Engineering with an Environmental Emphasis as my major because I saw civil engineering as a career path that would utilize my engineering background and would also allow me to be involved in my community. I received four job offers my senior year and selected the opportunity that I thought was with the best company with the best people. It turned out that job was in a wastewater process engineering group for a consulting company. I loved learning about all the various processes in the treatment plant and meeting the people in the plants. Looking back, I see that the opportunities were very different, and I’m not sure that I would have ended up in wastewater with any of the other opportunities. I guess things really do happen for a reason because I am very happy now.
Q. What is your favorite part of your job? What are you most proud of?
Rachel: Throughout my career, I have gotten the most satisfaction and joy out of knowing that I am helping people solve problems and develop sustainable solutions. This happens in so many ways, whether it’s developing a facility plan that will guide a utility for the next 20 years, or being the first young professional member of a professional association board, or developing a circular economy by recovering phosphorus… I get to do things that help create connections and solve problems.
Q. What advice would you give to someone new to the industry?
Rachel: I would encourage people new to our industry to learn as much as they can, get involved, get to know the people, and don’t burn bridges. Our industry is full of wonderful people who care about what they do and are always happy to share their knowledge and provide feedback. Getting involved in professional organizations like the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and Central States Water Environment Association (CSWEA) is a great way to make connections in the industry while building your resume, learning, and creating a sense of community. My last piece of advice is to not burn bridges. This is something that my father passed on to me when I was just starting my career. We work in a small industry where your competitor can become your colleague or client overnight.
Q. Can you tell us about a cool project you worked on?
Rachel: Early in my career, we were working on a large planning effort for the City of Atlanta’s four wastewater treatment plants. We established the design basis and future projections. Then we went out to the plants and did a series of full-scale tests including activated sludge sampling to calibrate a BioWin model, chemically enhanced primary treatment, and secondary clarifier stress testing. I spent a full summer at the treatment plants, learning about the equipment and what goes into this type of testing. The work ended up getting published at WEFTEC. In the way that things always seem to come back around in the wastewater world, my current company, Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, is in the process of installing a phosphorus recovery system at their R.M. Clayton plant.
Q. What are some of the top questions you get asked? How do you answer them?
Rachel: In my current role as Manager of Nutrient Recovery Solutions for Ostara, I help utilities develop and evaluate phosphorus recovery solutions. This role is a big change from my former roles in consulting engineering for regional consulting firms, and the job does involve travel. People always ask me how I make travel work while being a mom of three young boys. My answer is that you just keep doing the best that you can. It’s certainly not perfect or easy all the time. My husband and I regularly talk about what’s working and what’s not and just go from there. When the boys were younger, grocery delivery was invaluable. Now having someone help with the boys every afternoon whether I’m home or not has really helped. My current role is based in my home office.
Another question I get asked is “How has the change from consulting to sales been for you?” I’m really enjoying working for Ostara. I’ve been there for three and a half years, and in that time I’ve learned a ton. I had to become an expert in struvite precipitation, biological phosphorus removal, and anaerobic digestion – and I’ve had to learn how to communicate that to many audiences from elected officials, to citizens, to plant staff, to highly skilled professionals. My colleagues and clients are a great group of people, and it’s wonderful to be part of something that is solving a global problem. We are removing phosphorus from where it shouldn’t be – our water – and returning it to where it should be in order to be available to growing crops.