Ashley Roberts Loves Chemistry – In the Lab and the Kitchen

Ashley Roberts brings high energy, a positive attitude and a strong work ethic to her role as a lab manager with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District

Ashley Roberts Loves Chemistry – In the Lab and the Kitchen

Ashley Roberts, laboratory manager, Hampton Roads Sanitation District

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On completing her degree in chemistry Ashley Roberts wasn’t sure where she would go to work. She did have a clear idea what she would be doing.

“I enjoyed the labs while I was taking all my classes,” she recalls. “It was the most interesting thing to me. I told my professor, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I’m going to be testing something.’”

Several months after graduation from Virginia Wesleyan College in 2013, she landed at the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, where she performed all manner of tests important to keeping the district’s clean-water plant processes in control and effluent in permit compliance.

Today, after a series of promotions, she is one of four laboratory managers in the district’s Central Environmental Laboratory Division, which has some 50 team members and is accredited for 76 methods with 406 analytes. She is also the winner of the 2022 Water Environment Federation Laboratory Analyst Award from the Virginia Water Environment Association.

Stacie Crandall, chief of the district’s Laboratory Division, observes, “Ashley exhibited excellent technical expertise and supervision in our wet chemistry section. Since becoming a manager, she has shown herself to be a great communicator. She is assertive when she needs to be and is confident in her knowledge. She ensures that training for her team is adequate and that we are meeting method and regulatory requirements.”

High energy

Roberts, a Virginia native, applied for lab jobs in the medical and food industries before taking a part-time lab technician job with the HRSD in October 2013. Five months later she was promoted to full-time status. A few months later she earned another promotion, to lab specialist, a position she held for three years.

She was elevated to chemist in 2017 and in 2022 became one of four lab managers, each of whom oversees sections of the laboratory. Roberts is responsible for the microbiological section and the demand section, which measures parameters such as BOD and COD. In total, she supervises 14 analysts including lab technicians, specialists and chemists.

For her quick rise in the organization she credits her love for testing, her flexibility and her personality. “If you meet me in person, I am this 4-foot-11 tiny little thing, but I am a huge ball of energy. I was able to bring a positive environment to working.

“If you see me in the morning, I’ll say, ‘Hey, how are you? What’s going on? Tell me about your day.’ If you come into work feeling a little gloomy and walk past me, it will be hard to continue that mood.

“I was a very positive leader, ensuring that everybody had what they needed. And I was a hard worker. There was nothing you could ask of me that wouldn’t get done in a timely manner. When I had to choose between the highest priorities versus what just needed to get done at some point, I was pretty good at that. I think all that made me a good candidate for lab manager. I was volunteering to come in on holidays and weekends.

“I’m in a different role now. Instead of doing what I told my professors I would do, I’m overseeing and scheduling projects and making sure they get done.”

Well equipped

The Hampton Roads district operates eight major wastewater treatment plants and six smaller plants. The Central Environmental Laboratory Division provides tests for internal process control and regulatory purposes.

 In addition, it performs sampling for the industrial pretreatment program, and its Municipal Assistance Program offers environmental monitoring and analytical services at cost to government agencies and smaller communities throughout Virginia. All told, the lab tests nearly 85,000 samples per year.

All these services require well-qualified staff and sophisticated equipment. The district uses these key technologies:

  • Filtration racks and filtration apparatus for TSS analysis
  • Robotics for BOD
  • Flow injection analysis equipment for total nitrogen and total phosphorus measurement
  • Combustion analyzer for TOC analysis
  • Ion chromatography analyzer for anions such as chloride, fluoride, sulfate and bromide
  • Gas chromatograph for organic compounds
  • Inductively coupled plasma and other instrumentation for metals analysis

Other equipment includes microscopes for microbiological analysis, conductivity meters and spectrophotometers for various analyses performed infrequently. Instruments are rigorously maintained and calibrated. “We perform a lot of preventive maintenance on our analyzers to ensure that they are available when we need them the most,” says Roberts.

Daily challenges

As a lab manager, Roberts supervises chemists Justin Spute and George Decatur. She also works closely with the three other lab managers: Dr. Li Zhang, organics; Robin Parnell, metals and solids; and Kerri Williams, nutrients and wet chemistry. The team also includes Reginald Morgan, quality assurance manager; and Edwin Strange, systems manager.

For Roberts, a key challenge is leading team members who do kinds of testing outside her core area of expertise. “While I may not know how to run the particular instrument, as their manager I’m responsible for knowing the ins and outs of the analysis — the theory behind it and a general idea of how the analyzer works,” Roberts says.

“So if they tell me that one of their quality controls is out of its required range and they don’t know why, I assist in troubleshooting, such as asking about the reagents used for this analysis. When was the last time the reagent was made? Was the balance that weighed the reagent properly calibrated? If it’s an analyzer that isn’t functioning properly, I look at when it was last calibrated. I look at everything that goes into the analysis.”

Another challenge is scheduling to ensure that enough people are on duty to handle the workload. To that end, cross-training is valuable. While the chemists function as specialists in their areas, the specialists and technicians are cross-trained. “We call them floaters,” says Roberts. “They can float within any section as long as they’ve been trained for that area.”

A key priority

HRSD invests heavily in training for lab personnel. The length and extent of training for entry-level technicians have been established through years of experience. “It takes at a minimum a month to train someone on an analyzer to pretty much cover every scenario,” Roberts says.

The new team member is paired with a chemist who explains the theory behind the analysis, the workings of the analyzer, the reagents used, and the standard operating procedures for doing the analysis. The trainee first observes and is encouraged to ask questions. “If anything goes wrong, they see the troubleshooting methods,” Roberts notes.

The trainee then gets increasing levels of hands-on experience and then takes on full days of work under the chemist’s observation and critique. After training comes essentially an oral exam given by the lab manager. After a satisfactory outcome, the technician performs a demonstration of capability before being signed off to work independently. Lab analysts are required to recertify annually.

Retaining personnel is a high priority. The district focuses on employee retention by offering opportunities for development in addition to annual step increases in pay based on merit reviews. The district pays in full for continuing education, including pursuit of bachelor’s or master’s degrees and also provides internal training for leadership skills, team building exercises across departments, Toastmasters for developing public speaking skills, and other continuing education programs.

Connecting with operations

Lab results play an essential role in keeping the treatment plant operating efficiently. Lab personnel interact with the treatment plant engineers who oversee operations. The engineers can order special testing if, for example, an effluent parameter is drifting toward noncompliance or a new technology is being brought online.

A major challenge for the lab is the district’s Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow, which takes water that otherwise would be discharged to receiving waters, subjects it to advanced treatment to bring it to drinking-water quality, and uses it to replenish the Potomac Aquifer, the region’s primary source of groundwater.

 The additional treatment includes flocculation/sedimentation, ozone contact, biologically active filtration, granular activated carbon treatment, UV disinfection and chlorine contact. These steps ensure that SWIFT Water meets federal primary drinking-water standards while providing added controls for unregulated contaminants such as personal care products, pharmaceuticals and other contaminants. The SWIFT Research Center in Suffolk has the capability to recharge 1 mgd of water into the aquifer.

Roberts sees the SWIFT initiative increasing the lab’s workload significantly, in part to test for various organic compounds, eventually including PFAS. “We have had to add many positions in support of that,” Roberts says.

Career path

For the future, Roberts aspires to earn a master’s degree in chemistry and to advance in her career, but for now she’s happy where she is: “I have two kids, 10 and 8 years old, and keeping them on track with school and sports, I’m pulled in a million directions. Maybe when things calm down I’ll go back and add some extra letters after my name. Right now I’m continuing to learn my job. I learn something new each day.”

Lab Chief Crandall notes, “Ashley brings positivity to any situation she is involved in. She is able to work through corrective action, looking for the silver lining, and making weaknesses into strengths and negative outcomes into positive learning opportunities. She is really the whole package as a laboratory manager.”

Roberts has earned various recognitions beyond her Laboratory Analyst Award. While a chemist she performed method development for multiple analyses and was a primary participant in three VELAP Assessments, including TOC analysis.

She has served as a judge for a regional science and engineering fair, has taken part in career-related outreach events, and has been an instructor for the HRSD’s nationally recognized Operator Apprenticeship Program.

“I definitely enjoy my job,” she says. “HRSD has prepared me well. It’s a great organization to work for. If anyone comes in this direction looking for a job, they should make HRSD their home.”


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