Orange County Government: Women in STEM
Shelby Craig, who works to keep our drinking water safe, took an untraditional path on her way to becoming a senior chemist for Orange County.
Often, career paths can be winding roads and such was the case for Shelby Craig, senior chemist for the Orange County Utilities Water Division. While her dream was to work with orcas, she was eventually drawn more towards conservation and the environment, graduating in 2011 from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
“It was a right turn for sure, but I realized I loved microbiology, and the nuances of water conservation and its impact on communities really intrigued me,” she said.
In 2014 Craig enrolled in the Marine Environmental Science Master’s program at Nova Southeastern University and worked as a microbiology supervisor at Florida-Spectrum Environmental Services in Fort Lauderdale. “Long hours at the lab, a willingness to learn and helping hands along the way allowed me to be successful,” she says. “My time there gave me confidence, and I learned about the importance of water quality,” she recalls.
While still finishing her master’s degree, Craig moved to Orlando and started working for Orange County Utilities. Today, she works in the microbiology laboratory where drinking, ground, waste and surface water samples come in every day to be tested for microorganisms that can make residents sick.
The microbiology lab team analyzes water samples for the presence of bacteria, called indicator organisms, which, while not necessarily harmful themselves, can indicate the possible presence of more harmful organisms within the body of water being tested. Indicator organisms occur naturally within the environment, however, large numbers within a water sample – whether from the drinking water system, a public swimming area, or private well – have been linked to the presence of organisms such as Salmonella, which may cause illness.
“We don’t want to see any indicator organisms – period – in the drinking water,” she asserted. The presence of these indicator organisms within the drinking water system can lead to events such as the closure of wells and even boil water notices.
She manages a team of chemists and interns, who must ensure required testing on dozens of fresh and incubated samples stay on strict time schedules. Additionally, the lab has a variety of quality control checks and procedures. “Making sure all analysts are on track throughout the day is extremely important to ensuring all samples are processed and analyzed properly and the day runs smoothly,” she says.
Craig credits her parents with providing her with constant encouragement of her pursuits. “My parents were supportive of whatever I wanted to do, and when I was getting my master’s degree, the encouragement I received from professors and advisors really got me through.”
For young girls thinking about pursuing STEM careers, she believes they should have confidence in their abilities and be willing to get their feet wet. “If it’s something you want to do and feel strongly about, you need to jump in because today these fields are in demand. So explore and discover, then tailor your specific interests from there.”
Photo cutline: Shelby Craig works in the lab at Orange County Utilities.