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Meet Nino Stea: 2024 AWWA Woodard & Curran Scholarship Recipient

“I grew up in a patriarchal culture, raised to be an obedient follower. However, I wanted to be more than just a follower,” says Nino Stea. She remembers being an inquisitive child. “Growing up in Tbilisi, an eastern European city in Georgia, I would often go off exploring the neighborhood. I also remember playing with construction toys with my older brother and following my father around with a hammer and screwdriver helping him fix things in the house.”

In 2023, Nino finished her undergraduate studies in environmental engineering at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and is now pursuing her doctoral degree from the same institution. During the American Water Works Association’s 2024 Annual Conference & Expo, Nino was presented the Woodard & Curran Scholarship. Established in 2017, this annual scholarship provides $5,000 to members of historically marginalized communities, such as women and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), pursuing an advanced degree as a means of advancing equity in the industry.

Trailblazing a path for women in the water industry

During Nino’s academic studies, she has taken on several leadership roles to break down barriers for other women in the engineering field. She joined UCF’s Water Quality Engineering Research Group (WQERG) and is the lead graduate student working with the Sarasota Utilities Department to screen potable water for the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the system. The project is focused on studying the contaminant’s chemistry and how its molecular structure plays a role in PFAS removal. The research is intended to provide useful occurrence data for the water purveyor’s planning needs. In this capacity, she also trains undergraduate students on various laboratory tasks.

She is actively involved in various programs, setting an example for her daughters and other women who may not otherwise consider careers in the male dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As a STEM Ambassador, she leads hands-on activities related to water and wastewater, informing aspiring students of treatment, conservation, and reuse. She also served as the project leader for an aquaponics project in rural Bithlo, which is addressing poverty in the community by providing a supplemental food supply.

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Attending a STEM Ambassador Event

Nino Stea

Collecting a water sample

Nino started her undergraduate studies with the intent to become a teacher, but classes in environmental engineering piqued her interest. In her scholarship application, Nino wrote, “I used to doubt myself and my ability to be a leader, a good engineer, and a contributor. My doubts were thankfully shattered and fears to join a male-dominated industry were overcome with the help of my role model’s amazing leadership skills and encouraging words.”

She said Woodard & Curran’s scholarship will help support her intellectual growth and critical research regarding PFAS in drinking water and wastewater streams, while allowing her to continue motivating grade school and high school students. She says, “I hope to inspire and empower little girls from early on so that they understand engineering is not an untamable monster and that there is a place for them in the field. I hope to serve as an example to other females and inspire them to follow their heart.”

As an undergraduate student, Nino was determined to educate herself on overcoming challenges created by an increasing number of pollutants with the goal of understanding how to improve water quality fundamental to healthy living, so she joined UCF’s WQERG in the fall of 2019. She has remained in the group during her doctoral studies in environmental engineering. Dr. Steven Duranceau, PE, advisor to the WQERG, wrote in his recommendation letter, “Nino excelled in learning the design principles and constraints of a brackish groundwater reverse osmosis water treatment facility. [She] continues to pursue those efforts that provide her the highest quality learning environment, both academically and practically where she can learn and apply her technical skills, leading to engineering solutions that resolve issues affecting the municipal water community.”

He added that Nino’s “leadership, motivation character, and self-reliance” are characteristics evident in her work and contributions to date. When our own Erika Wilson, PE, was reviewing the scholarship applications, she noted Nino stood out to her as a worth recipient because of “her innovative graduate research in collaboration with the Sarasota Utilities Department, her work ethic as a doctorate student and mother of two, and her role as a STEM Ambassador, in which she mentors undergraduate students and inspires children to pursue engineering.” As with all our past scholarship recipients, we are excited to see Nino become a rising star in the water industry.

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