Wondering About the Value of Industry Associations? Ask Melanie Vines.

Melanie Vines launched an award-winning WEF student chapter. Now she’s starting a career dedicated to ensuring quality water, in the U.S. and abroad

Wondering About the Value of Industry Associations? Ask Melanie Vines.

Leaders of the University of Alabama WEF Student Chapter accept the 2022 Student Chapter of the Year award. From left are Sarah Ortbal, president for 2022-2023; Karin Britt, president for 2021-2022; Melanie Vines, founder and president for 2020-2021 and vice president for 2021-2023; and Tina Sheikhzeinoddin, the group’s professional mentor from the Alabama Water Environment Association. 

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Melanie Vines entered college with her sights set on an engineering career focused on solving water problems and improving water quality in the United States and internationally.

Now, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental engineering and a Ph.D. in civil engineering, all from the University of Alabama, she’s a few months into a position with the Birmingham Water Works Research and Innovation Team.

A significant component of her schooling was founding and leading a Water Environment Federation and American Water Works Association student chapter at her university. The group, which took the name Young Water Professionals, received WEF’s inaugural Student Chapter of the Year Award for 2022.

In an interview with Treatment Plant Operator, Vines talked about her educational journey, the benefits of involvement with water industry associations, and her career aspirations.

TPO: How did you become interested in the water industry as a career direction?

Vines: I grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, in the Knoxville area. For a part of high school I thought of going into international studies because I was intrigued by different cultures. I attended a Tennessee Governor’s School for international studies, but when I listened to the speakers there who had an environmental focus, I became excited by the idea of helping people get clean water internationally.

TPO: How did that experience translate to the decision to study engineering in college?

Vines: My mom has a degree in civil engineering, and she encouraged me to look into that field and environmental engineering. I saw that as a practical route to being able to address water and wastewater issues. In my senior year of high school I interned with my hometown water and sewer department, where I shadowed the head engineer and the plant operators. Around that time the Flint water crisis hit the national news. That’s when I became aware that everything is not always perfect in the U.S., and that we have issues here in our backyard.

TPO: What factors led to your choice of universities?

Vines: I chose the University of Alabama for several reasons. Their merit scholarships are excellent. They have a fantastic environmental engineering program, and the school has a focus on service and giving back that I appreciated. Once there I quickly got involved in research and learned about the issues with sanitation in the Black Belt of Alabama. That drove home that I wanted to work to improve water quality globally but also stateside. From the moment I got involved in research my freshman year, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go. In my Ph.D. studies my focus was on drinking water treatment, specifically preventing and mitigating disinfection byproducts.

TPO: How would you describe your experience in your early years of college?

Vines: In my undergraduate career it was challenging to keep the end goal in mind. Sometimes, especially during sophomore year, I was in a lot of technical classes that didn’t seem to have a direct application to anything. It was easy to get bogged down in classwork and not see where all of it was going. But when I started my junior-level environmental engineering classes, all the pieces started coming together and I started to see the connections of water and wastewater to society. That included little things like understanding the purpose of construction projects that hold up traffic. 

TPO: How were things different at the post-graduate level?

Vines: Much of my graduate work was done through the pandemic, so I was not only learning to work more independently but being forced to do so during the period of isolation. It was also an adjustment because in graduate school you get less feedback. You’re not constantly getting grades on everything. You’re still in school, but you have to treat it more like a job. Now, it’s rewarding to look back and see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned.

TPO: How did you become involved with a student WEF and AWWA chapter?

Vines: A couple of young professionals from the local WEF Member Association, the Alabama Water Environment Association, approached my academic adviser, Dr. Leigh Terry, and asked if she would be interested in starting a student chapter. She agreed to oversee it and to find a student willing to be on the ground doing the work. And she reached out to me. The AWEA has been very involved in helping our group grow.

TPO: What was involved in getting the chapter up and running?

Vines: I did the groundwork to put a team of officers together. We were officially founded in the fall of 2020. That was a challenge in itself because due to the pandemic we were only able to meet virtually. It was a rocky start, but once we were able to meet in person the chapter really filled a void for a lot of students. In our department the American Society of Civil Engineers is pushed very hard, but if you’re pursuing a career in water, AWWA and WEF are your professional organizations. I hadn’t even heard of them until graduate school.

TPO: How does the student chapter benefit its members?

Vines: I went through my undergraduate career thinking my only career options were academia and consulting. Those are great options, but there are many other career paths in water and wastewater. The chapter has been wonderful in helping members build professional networks and gain exposure to the careers available. I have friends who graduated with me in 2020 and took the first job offer they got because they didn’t know what the job market would look like. Now they might be stuck in something that’s not the right fit, but they have no one they can turn to who can help them find something else. That is less likely to happen if you’re involved in a professional organization like WEF early on and can start building those connections.

TPO: What have been the chapter’s most significant activities?

Vines: We have meetings twice a month where we bring in speakers from different areas of the field. They talk about their career, how they got into it, and any advice they have. We’ve also taken field trips, and that has been a great way to bring in new members. We’ve visited our local water and wastewater treatment plants. We’ve also gone to a couple of conferences. After we won the Student Chapter of the Year award a few of us were able to attend WEFTEC. We also took our previous and incoming officers to the Alabama-Mississippi Water Joint Annual Conference in Mobile in April.

TPO: What kinds of people have you connected with through the student organization?

Vines: I’ve connected with a lot of people from the AWEA, many of whom are in leadership positions within WEF and within their companies. We’ve presented to AWEA monthly meetings on what we’re doing as a student chapter.

TPO: How have you sustained your connections now that you are no longer a part of the student chapter?

Vines: As I’ve transitioned toward being a Young Professional rather than a student, I’ve gone to regular WEF and AWWA lunch-and-learns. As a member of the Young Professionals group  I’m able to keep the relationships up and continue building the direction of my career.

TPO: What is the nature of your position with Birmingham Water Works?

Vines: During the last year of my Ph.D. work I interned there. In the research and innovation area they have a pilot-scale water treatment plant where they can test out new chemicals and technologies to see if it is worthwhile to invest in them full scale. My position is a perfect blend of using my research background within the practical context of doing work to improve the quality of water people drink.

TPO: Where do you see yourself longer term?

Vines: I’m not sure where my career will take me in the sense of exact job roles, but 10 to 15 years down the line I hope to be in a role where I can mentor students and young professionals coming into the industry and use my expertise and my position to educate the public. The water and wastewater industry is often overlooked and misunderstood. Right now, through my job, I’m doing research to find solutions to improve water quality and to better meet current and future EPA regulations. By doing that work at our pilot plant I hope to help other utilities that don’t have similar resources. For example, here’s a solution for organics removal to mitigate DBPs. I see my work helping to improve water quality in Birmingham and in the U.S. overall.


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