“I grew up on a farm in Colorado. While we never had water shortages on our farm, it was always a topic of conversation,” Maia Ferris said, recalling a news story about two men who brawled over water rights. “In the summer, my parents both worked on the farm, so I went to stay with my grandmother who lived in a small town in the mountains. She would frequently have her water shut off for two to three days at a time.”
Ferris, the 2021 recipient of the AWWA Woodard & Curran Scholarship, cites this childhood experience as just one reason she has chosen to pursue a graduate degree at University of Maine at Orono in the field of water resource engineering. It marks a definitive career shift for Ferris who earned her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Northern Arizona University and worked in the biomedical field until 2014 when she traveled to West Africa as a volunteer math teacher for Peace Corps Ghana.
“I was one of the more remote volunteers in a very rural area of Ghana, but the particular area was still better off than some other villages that actually ran out of water,” said Ferris, who heard accounts from elders that the land used to be greener with more frequent rain. Even still, in the driest part of the season, she had to collect water from a dam in an area that also collected raw sewage. “I would have to allow the solids to settle out and scoop water from the top, strain it through three layers of cloth, and even then, I wouldn’t use that water to drink or bath in. I would only use it to wash my clothes or clean, but I still had to be very careful that I e have any cuts or bites on my skin [while using the water].”
Upon returning to the United States, she said, “The thing that made the most difference in my life was having a toilet, a shower, and water coming out of the tap. Having access to internet and electricity is nice, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Access to water really does.”
Following Her Passion
“When I came back to the United States, I realized I had the opportunity for a career reset. I wanted a job that was honest, good work and to have a positive impact,” Ferris said. In April 2017, she began working for the Maine Drinking Water Program as a rule specialist. She has focused the past two years developing a statewide school water sampling program, including strategy, cost analysis, and timing, to help Maine schools comply with the state mandate to test for lead in drinking water.
“Maia’s engineering background is excellent for the work she is doing, understanding technical aspects of water system infrastructure and applying rules and requirements to a highly variable set of conditions and circumstances that exist with public water systems,” Nathan Saunders, Senior Environmental Engineer at the Maine Drinking Water Program, wrote in a referral letter for the scholarship application. “[Maia’s] work has helped the program succeed in managing some very complex requirements. Whatever engineering discipline she pursues, she will be an asset to the engineering community and the public as a result.”
The scholarship affords Ferris the ability to take more than one class a semester, which will help in achieving her goal of competency in the field of water resources and provide her with confidence to pursue her professional engineering licensure, as well as upgrade her operator licensure. While her first goal is to make it through the graduate program, Ferris foresees herself either working for the state, a water treatment plant, or a company focused on water treatment.
“Drinking water and wastewater is not a particularly glamorous field, but it has a really big impact on everyone in this country. This scholarship and the work Woodard & Curran and AWWA are doing is so important because it helps people who want to be in this field.”