Woman with a net collecting samples from a creek

Orange County Government: Women in STEM


Biologist Julie Bortles is helping protect water quality in Orange County’s lakes, rivers and springs

Growing up in Miami next to a lake, Julie Bortles was constantly outside playing. Her strong love for the environment, however, was fueled by her mother’s fondness for taking in injured animals – bats, ducks, squirrels, dogs, cats – thus exposing her to a love of nature.

“My mom taught me at an early age to respect the environment and its inhabitants,” said Bortles, who would spend all day out on the lake with not a care in the world. “We were always involved in some sort of outdoor activity, and as a Girl Scout I did a lot of camping.”

In primary school, Bortles, who excelled in math and science, wanted to be a veterinarian. She eventually enrolled in the pre-vet program at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and worked for a vet to gain some experience, but she ultimately decided to major in biology and take some art classes in order to become a medical illustrator. It was during one of her biology classes she realized she had a strong interest in entomology (the study of insects). She graduated from UCF with a Bachelor of Science in Biology in 1995 and got her first job as a laboratory technician at University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Central Florida Research and Education Center in Sanford, where she participated in various research projects in aquatic and agricultural entomology. After gaining practical experience, she got a job as a biologist for Orange County.

Today, as the Regulatory Compliance Program Coordinator at the Orange County Environmental Protection Division, Bortles runs a state-certified environmental laboratory that processes 30,000 water samples a year from 120-150 sites (streams, rivers and springs) per quarter, and she also goes out into the field with other biologists to test for ecological indicators such as aquatic organisms. She supervises another team of engineers and scientists strictly focused on building pollution reduction projects to improve water quality.

“Our overall responsibility is to ensure all Orange County waterways are maintained and meet state criteria for contaminants,” she explained.

Bortles has been with Orange County’s Environmental Protection Division for 20 years, and she believes the tide has turned for women in her field. At her first job, as one of the only women scientists on staff, she felt extra pressure to impress the others she worked with, but things have changed.

“When I go to meetings across the state, the majority of representatives in my position are women,” she said. “Today, we’re getting all kids involved in STEM, and we’re giving them the knowledge and power needed to enter these professions with confidence.”

Her advice to young girls: “You’re never going to know whether or not you like something unless you try it, so get out there and try it!”

Photo Caption: Julie Bortles at Orange County’s Environmental Protection Division collects water samples.

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