Never Stop Learning: Alumnus Solves Water Quality Issues

May 19, 2020

Alumnus Stefan Walston’s current title is a mouthful. But as a Water Utilities Process Coordinator in the City of Tempe, he weaves microbiology and water expertise with life lessons from military service and private sector to solve water quality issues.

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Alumnus Stefan Walston
Courtesy of Stefan Walston

With the goal to transparently and efficiently provide 40 million gallons of drinking water to residents on a daily basis, Stefan Walston (MS Soil, Water Environmental Science ’13) evaluates the water and wastewater systems for Tempe, just east of Phoenix.

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Alumnus Stefan walston
Courtesy of Stefan Walston

“I get to bring people together to solve all kinds of water quality issues, and I take great pride in the mission to provide clean water to the community I grew up in.”

Walston collaborates with drinking water operators, engineers, and regulatory compliance specialists to improve technology and respond directly to public concerns, ranging from odor to queries about the detection of COVID-19 in drinking water.

This microbiologist and water quality specialist also leads public outreach, providing tours of the water treatment plant to Girl Scouts, college students and even the local police department. 

“Your degree might not translate into a position, but don’t get discouraged. Instead, be open to opportunities and connect with people doing interesting things in your field.”

Walston earned his graduate degree at the University of Arizona under faculty Jean McLain and Channah Rock. But it all started when the Phoenix local decided to trade in his skateboard for a pipette, pursing a microbiology degree at Arizona State University and enlisting in the Army National Guard to support his academic aspirations.

Walston realized he didn’t want a traditional clinical microbiology trajectory and decided to work as a biological technician at the USDA Arid Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa. There he met McLain, and soon thereafter Channah Rock at the Maricopa Agricultural Center across the street.

“The whole world of environmental microbiology opened up to me when I started working with faculty from the University of Arizona.”

After a year as a technician and with the encouragement of faculty, Walston decided to pursue his Master’s at the University of Arizona.

“My favorite part of graduate work at the University of Arizona was seeing first-hand application of research on industry, such as farmers, water operators, and clinical healthcare workers.”

Walston’s graduate research focused on the impact of solid retention time on the degradation of antibiotic compounds throughout the wastewater treatment process, as well as the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria and the persistence of antibiotic resistance genes. He also assisted Cooperative Extension with community outreach and water quality analysis, and worked as a technician in the Arizona Laboratory for Emerging Contaminants.

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Alumnus Stefan Walston sampling water
Courtesy of Stefan Walston

Upon graduation, Walston went into the private sector at Food Safety Net Services. He gained critical team management and microbiology skills, but didn’t feel fulfilled scientifically, and switched gears to work for the Tempe municipality .

“I now do environmental science every day, incorporating microbiology and water quality with a focus on public health.”

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Alumnus Stefan Walston and his family
Courtesy of Stefan Walston

His water expertise has even come into play during his 13 years as an active military member. In a past deployment, he was recruited to solve a water issue on a different part of the base.

There’s never a dull moment from this environmental science alumnus, as he continues to balance his military duties with his scientific job. He will be deployed within the year, but is currently tackling a quarterly compliance update that ensures the water continues to be safe for the Tempe community.