The water industry wasn’t her first career choice. But the transition from oil-field geologist to water technician proved that some skill sets are surprisingly diverse.
Abigail Foust had done everything from working as a janitor to selling fly fishing waders. She even worked for three years in the oil industry in North Dakota. But when the oil boom in the region tanked, Foust, a Florida native with a geology degree, found herself unemployed.
Although she had hoped to return to the rigs, Foust eventually found herself working in the celan water industry — as a technician at the Bozeman Water Reclamation Facility in Montana.
“I didn’t really realize the scale of expertise that goes into it and the technology,” says Foust, 30. “It’s a huge industry.”
After starting at the facility in June 2016, Foust is finding herself at home — especially since she always imagined herself working in the water field.
The shift to water
While an undergrad at Florida State, Foust worked at the geological survey in Florida. “We did water studies. I kind of thought I’d go into water,” she says. Instead, after growing enamored with the mountains after a trip to Colorado, Foust searched for a job out West.
That’s when she found a job as a well-site geologist in North Dakota. “For horizontal drilling, I interpreted real-time data that came from 40 feet behind the bit, so you have an idea of where you were and use that to predict where you’re going. Of course, it doesn’t always work out and you have to adapt rapidly to any unforeseen problems.
“It’s like that at our [water] plant, and you could say every well you drill has different challenges just like every plant. We work as a team and all contribute unique experiences to solve any unforeseen issues.”
A few years ago, Foust was laid off when the oil industry slowed down. And while she had hoped to return to the rigs, she took odd jobs and decided to return to grad school at Montana State to study geology.
However, her path soon took a different course. She found herself in an entirely new career at the Bozeman Water Reclamation Facility. The 8.5 mgd plant, which uses biological nutrient removal, can accommodate wastewater flows of more than 13 mgd. At the plant, works in testing and maintenance, collecting daily samples to monitor effluent that empties into the East Gallatin River.
“I already had worked in a lab doing water things and testing in Florida,” says Foust. “There’s a maintenance side too, making sure everything’s working. It’s a lot of monitoring, and then if something is off, you figure out what the problem is.”
Working in water isn’t that much different than her geological work, Foust says, especially since her research involved “water-rock interaction.” Still, she’d like to advance her knowledge of the industry, so she’s been attending workshops and learning from her coworkers.
Foust is one of 16 employees at the plant, including one other woman, a she says they are all willing to share expertise.
“The people I work with have backgrounds in chemistry, microbiology, water treatment and engineering,” she says. “They teach me things about their expertise, and it makes for engaging and meaningful work relationships where we have sort of developed our own sense of humor at work.
“I think I fit right in because the job requires a combination of chemistry, math, physics, biology, environmental science, lab techniques and critical thinking, which we all relate on. And Florida geology is, of course, more water-centered and consists of mostly limestone, which is mostly formed by microbes.”
When they’re not hard at working, Foust said she enjoys the levity her team brings to the job. In addition to joking around, they’re also learning German together.
But just like her work in the oil industry, Foust has learned that oil and water do indeed mix — it’s just a matter of hard work and respect.
“I think I learned to just have a positive attitude and work really hard and be competent. … That’s how I learned to gain respect on the rigs.”