As an undeclared sophomore at the U, Dani Zebelean had no idea that entering a student design competition would put her on a path to a fulfilling career doing extremely important and vital work for the state of Utah.
Now an Environmental Engineer for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Zebelean works in the Division of Drinking Water issuing construction and operating permits for drinking water facilities in Rich, Davis, Summit, and Wasatch counties.
Yet, as a sophomore, Zebelean had no idea that entering the Water Environment Association of Utah (WEAU) student design competition would introduce her to future academic and professional careers, as well as her newfound passion: water treatment.
“The competition was my first introduction into water treatment and I immediately fell in love with it,” said Zebelean.
The competition starts in the fall and wraps up in the spring with the aim of addressing a local wastewater treatment problem. For their project, Dani’s team came up with a solution for Magna’s wastewater problem to address the then upcoming Phosphorous limit. They ended up winning at the state level and going on to compete nationally at the WEFTEC conference the following fall.
From there, Zebelean went on to become involved in the Integrated Water Resources student chapter while at the U, which combined the student groups from the American Water Resources Association, American Water Works Association, and the Water Environment Association of Utah. She would go on to become the Vice President of this group for 2 years while earning her master’s.
Her passion for researching and working in water treatment led her to make the decision to pursue her master’s in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the U.
“When I was graduating with my bachelor’s, I wasn’t excited to be done with school yet. I really wanted to stay and learn more,” she said.
Specifically, Zebelean wanted more hands-on lab experience in with water chemistry, and working with her graduate advisor Dr. Jennifer Weidhaas afforded her the opportunity to run her own bio reactor for the two years she was completing her degree.
“I have to give a big shout out to Dr. Weidhaas,” said Zebelean. “I’m really proud to have accomplished writing my thesis. As I’m sure other engineers can relate, writing was not my strong suit. She played a big role in my completing it.”
Perhaps not ironically, Dr. Weidhaas was also the faculty advisor of that WEAU student competition way back when Zebelean was just a sophomore.
At the Division of Drinking Water, Dani now issues permits for treatment facilities across the state. In the summer, she also helps with Sanitary Surveys—essentially audits of water systems.
“I really love my job, and I especially like the combined office and field work,” she said. “All the water treatment and water chemistry courses I took for my bachelor’s and master’s directly apply to what I’m doing now.”
Dani’s advice to younger students at the U is to branch out, search for groups or events to join, and be open to trying new things. “You never know what might inspire you, or where it will take you,” she said.