Many people helped Shelly Higdon advance in her career. Now she takes time to pay it forward.

Michele Higdon credits much of her success to the Southern Indiana Operators Association. She says thanks by giving back as a volunteer.

Many people helped Shelly Higdon advance in her career. Now she takes time to pay it forward.

Higdon is a big believer in the Water Environment Federation Operations Challenge and has been a participant since 2004.

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What does a career spanning more than three decades in one place look like? Ask Michele “Shelly” Higdon, laboratory manager for the Shelbyville (Indiana) Water Resource Recovery Facility.

Hired at age 19, lightly trained and heavily self-educated, Higdon advanced from mainly secretarial work to her current position. Early on, she discovered her most valuable resource — the Southern Indiana Operators Association — and earned her Class I (lowest) operator’s license.

Higdon’s dedication to the association shows in the offices she has held. “I’m almost a fixture when it comes to secretary/treasurer, but I have been president twice,” she says. She has also represented the group on the executive board of the Indiana Water Environment Association.

In 1995 and 2012, the operators group recognized Higdon with Professional of the Year awards. She also received the Laboratory Excellence Award from the Indiana WEA 19 times between 1995 and 2019. Along the way, she standardized the lab, raised a family, and trained numerous plant operators in basic wastewater tests.

“The first time I walked into the lab, I thought it was pretty cool, very interesting, and something different,” Higdon says. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

Treating the flow

Built in 1960 and upgraded in 1988 and 2001, Shelbyville’s 16 mgd (design) trickling-filter-packed bed reactor (biotower) plant averages 8 mgd from 19,000 customers. At the Conrey Pump Station, an inline double-drum Channel Monster grinder (Sulzer Pumps) macerates debris before four dry pit submersible pumps (Pentair Fairbanks Nijhuis) move the wastewater through a 24-inch force main under the Big Blue River to the headworks.

A Parshall flume at the headworks measures the flow before it enters two grit chambers at a 60/40 split to slow the stream. Two Model C grit pumps (Trillium Pumps USA Inc. – WEMCO) send the grit to a Grit Mitt Classifier (WesTech Engineering) before it is landfilled.

Wastewater enters three primary settling tanks followed by a recirculation pump station. Four variable-speed pumps (Pentair Fairbanks Nijhuis) send water to three 14-foot-tall high-rate trickling filters filled with plastic crossflow mesh for fixed-film suspended growth. From there, liquid flows to two aeration basins with five blowers (Hoffman & Lamson, by Gardner Denver), then to three secondary clarifiers, a TrojanUV4000 disinfection system, and a 36-inch Parshall flume before discharge to the river.

Sludge is pumped to two primary anaerobic digesters, heated, homogenized by Pearth dual gas mixers (Evoqua Water Technologies), and stored in a secondary digester with a Dystor system (Evoqua). Captured methane gas substitutes for natural gas to heat the primary digesters.

Material at 4-6% solids is dewatered to 24-27% solids cake on a 1.5-meter K-S Kompress belt filter press (Komline-Sanderson) and land applied. In the lab, Higdon uses an Orion pH meter (Thermo Fisher Scientific), Hach luminescence BOD probe and spectrophotometer, IDEXX Laboratories solutions and Colilert test for E. coli.

World of change

Higdon’s clean, organized laboratory gives few clues to its evolution. When she was hired in April 1986, the BOD, TSS, pH and fecal coliform tests took a few hours to run in the morning, leaving the rest of the day for secretarial work.

“I came to the lab through the back door,” says Higdon, who took secretarial courses in high school and worked part-time for the city through the school-sponsored work experience program. “The year after graduation, the laboratory technician/secretary position became available, and the money was a little better. I never knew the plant existed until I filled out the application.”

Higdon trained for two months under Beverly Brenner before she retired. “I loved her to death,” says Higdon. “Bev helped me realize that I could do lab work and that mistakes were part of the learning process.”

At age 19, alone in the lab with only Brad Fix, plant superintendent, in a next-door office, Higdon began her long venture. Her first stop was an applied chemistry course at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. It covered all testing done in wastewater labs.

Her education accelerated that year when Fix introduced her to the SIOA: “I joined right away. Here was an entire network of mentors willing to answer questions and help me understand scientific elements in lay terms.”

Broad shoulders

After two years on the job, Higdon’s confidence level had risen substantially. Then came the 1988 rebuild, and with it a new lab and new requirements, such as ammonia testing, quality control, and QC charts showing results from the maintenance, repair and operations forms. It fell to Higdon to develop the quality assurance plan: “I had plenty of time to learn, but occasionally struggled with new things because I was always alone and learning on my own.” 

To form a game plan, Higdon relied on the Indiana WEA Laboratory Committee and attended seminars. “I couldn’t understand why we did quality control charts, because the inspectors never looked at them,” she says. “And I was terrified to submit the prescribed test results for the annual U.S. EPA Discharge Monitoring Report-Quality Assurance Study.”

Her anxiety hit the stratosphere with the arrival of state laboratory inspectors. They turned out to be mentors in disguise, explaining the ins and outs of quality assurance and the documentation needed to produce defensible data with known precision and accuracy. As new requirements were added, the inspectors taught Higdon what to do.

“At least new things arrived one at a time, enabling me to assimilate them into my routine before the next one hit,” Higdon says. “It took a long time before I understood Standard Methods, but the more I learned, the more I developed my own system of doing things.”

Organizational skills

Higdon originally ran lab tests during the workweek and held samples over the weekend. After the addition, testing went to seven days a week, and for the first 16 years Higdon spent three hours on Saturday mornings and on holidays running tests. An operator did basic tests on Sundays. By 1991, Higdon was taking home bench sheets and quality control charts to keep up, and she was pregnant with her first son.

With her maternity leave looming, Fix hired Bronda Vierling to take over the secretarial work and learn to run basic lab tests. (Vierling’s husband is the wastewater foreman.) “Had I known what it took to get an assistant, I would have become pregnant sooner,” Higdon says, who was married in 1990. Her second son arrived in 1992, and her third son in 2002. “One reason I love my job is because I have the freedom to run home if needed. Bronda made that possible.”

All the while, Higdon continued to improve the lab, starting by training all the operators in the basics of how to run it. She established a daily routine, which stretched her organizational skills but eliminated confusion. Then she wrote standard operating procedures — step-by-step instructions for how to run every test in the Shelbyville lab. During training, operators receive their own copies of the SOPs in which to write notes.

Higdon also wrote the quality assurance manual that includes work instructions, records and her operating procedures. “That was a lengthy project and it’s all in lay terms,” she says.

Physically organizing the lab came next. Every beaker, reagent kit, solution bottle and cylinder has its place and Higdon demands that users return them to their assigned cabinet or pegboard: “I’m big on organization and cleanliness. I don’t like clutter.”

Sharing knowledge

Over the years, Higdon has morphed into the mentor, involved in education in her lab or through the SIOA. In the lab, she reassures operators that there is nothing they can do wrong that she hasn’t done already: “I can tell where the mistake was made by the results. Recently, an operator put a sample in the tube instead of a standard and got 2.36 ppm instead of 1.00 ppm. It’s not a catastrophe. Start over.”

Higdon determines which operators cover the lab on weekends and in her absence. Before leaving, she checks that they have dilution water, adds dates to bench sheets, and highlights what to do on them. If operators haven’t been in the lab for a few months, she holds a refresher course, especially if procedures have changed.

In summer 2019, Higdon took part in a new educational opportunity through a Workforce Development project. Two seniors from the Shelbyville High School science department trained and worked part-time in the lab with her for a month and were paid by the city.

The students also toured the plant and learned about treating wastewater. By the second week, both had mastered all the lab tests. “I was very impressed with the knowledge they had already and how quickly they understood what I taught them,” Higdon says. “I would love to see this become an annual program.”

Rewarding career

Lacking the desire to be a public speaker, Higdon works behind the scenes, serving on the Planning Committee for SIOA’s monthly meetings. Members gather at treatment plants for a tour, lunch, a business meeting and a presentation. Attendees earn two contact hours per meeting. The committee asks operators to suggest seminar topics, recruits speakers, collects their bios and submits outlines of their programs to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for approval of the contact hours.

The only time Higdon wants to step into the limelight is to do a hands-on lab video: “I watched some how-tos on basic lab tests on YouTube and saw a definite need for someone to do them correctly. The errors were so appalling, I had to stop watching.”

In 2010, the city revised its job descriptions and made Higdon the laboratory manager. Nothing else changed, not even the nameplate on her desk, which still reads Laboratory Technician.

Although Higdon has reached the Golden 85 for retirement (age plus years of service), she isn’t sure it’s time to leave. “Many factors will influence my decision, including finding a trustworthy replacement with the same passionate commitment I have to the laboratory, and a person who will keep SIOA going strong,” she says.

“Personally, 34 years have flown by in a flash, and I’m still happy with the way things are. How many people can say that?”   


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