Katherine “Katie” Wardinski, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, was recognized as the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Masters Student. Wardinski was excited when she first heard the news and felt honored to be recognized in the Virginia Tech engineering community. 

After learning that this recognition came with a monetary reward, Wardinski decided to donate the money to her high school in West Allis, Wisconsin to create a Women in STEM scholarship for one lucky student. “I feel very passionately about elevating women in STEM and so I thought that would be a really impactful way to directly help someone pursue their interest,” she said. 

Wardinski was inspired to create this opportunity for a student at her high school because she remembered her own journey. When she was in high school, Wardinski attended a Women in STEM summer camp and learned about the environmental engineering field. After the summer camp, Wardinski knew that she didn’t want to do anything else and she dived into environmental engineering studies as quickly as she could.

She would enroll at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and receive her Bachelor of Science degree in environmental engineering. When Wardinski was reflecting on her path to Virginia Tech, she talked about a faculty member in the civil and environmental engineering department at UW-Platteville: Dr. Gretchen Bohnhoff. Bohnhoff was Wardinski’s class instructor and undergraduate research advisor but, to Wardinski, Bohnhoff was so much more. “Dr. Bohnhoff was a huge mentor and role model. Her passion for environmental engineering and research was inspirational. To have her as a mentor and role model as a successful woman in STEM... that definitely left an impression on me.”

Katherine Wardinski photographed with her father and brother
Wardsinki (middle) photographed with her father and brother at their family cabin in Northern Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Katherine Wardinski.

Dr. Bohnhoff’s passion for environmental engineering was reminiscent of Wardinski’s father and his passion for the environment. Though Dr. Bohnhoff inspired Wardinski to become a successful woman in STEM, Wardinski credits her father for her initial interest in the environment. Her father is a retired high school biology and ecology teacher and he encouraged Wardinski and her brother to be curious about the world around them and to appreciate the environment. For as long as she can remember, Wardinski was always around a source of freshwater in Wisconsin. As she grew older, she began learning about the water quality challenges the Great Lakes faced.

In 1993, Milwaukee suffered from a Cryptosporidiosis outbreak and this incident would become the largest waterborne disease outbreak in documented United States history. Milwaukee has since become a leader in drinking water treatment. Despite this, Wardinski says that there’s still ongoing water quality issues in Wisconsin. “Agriculture is an important industry in Wisconsin but excess nutrients from fertilizers, like nitrogen and phosphorus, can end up in our freshwater systems and cause harmful algal blooms, which lead to poor water quality,” Wardinski said. “These water-quality issues need to be solved by ecological engineers, and I want to be a part of the solution.”

Katherine with fellow graduate students at a stream clean up
Wardinski (second from the right) photographed with fellow graduate students during a Graduate Student Organization (GSO) Stream Clean Up Event in 2019.

With this goal in mind, Wardinski would begin at Virginia Tech as a graduate student in the department during the fall 2019 semester. When she’s not in class or in Dr. Durelle Scott’s lab, Wardinski is heavily involved on campus as a member of the biogeosciences group and the New Horizon Graduate Scholars Program, an officer of the BSE Graduate Student Organization, and the BSE representative at the Graduate Student Assembly.

Wardinski is currently researching carbon cycling in geographically isolated wetlands, and she’s specifically looking at the Delmarva Peninsula as part of a larger research project with multiple departments and multiple universities involved. The goal of the research project is two-fold: discover the connection between these wetlands and their influence on water quality and explore the role these wetlands can play in decreasing the effects of climate change.

“Geographically isolated wetlands are important because, even though they don’t have a continuous surface water connection, they can still influence downstream water quality,” Wardinski said. “They’re also important because they can act as carbon sinks, which means that they store carbon and, with climate change, you don’t want carbon being released into the atmosphere. By understanding how the changes in water levels drives carbon cycling in these wetlands, we can inform restoration efforts.”

Katherine Wardinski working in the field
Wardinski doing fieldwork in the Delmarva Peninsula for her project. Photo courtesy of Katherine Wardinski.

Wardinski hopes to receive her Masters of Science degree by the end of the summer upon successful completion of her thesis. In the fall 2021 semester, Wardinski will continue her education by enrolling as a Ph.D. student and she’ll continue working in Dr. Scott’s lab. “I’ve really enjoyed working under Dr. Scott. I think he’s a great advisor who’s really invested in his students' success and making positive environmental change through his research. I look forward to working with him as a Ph.D. student,” she said.

After Wardinski gets her Ph.D., she’s not sure whether she’ll stay in academia or work for a government agency, but she knows that she wants to remain in research and continue to support women in STEM. 

 “My goal for the future is to become an ecological engineer and to use my knowledge and education to help people gain and maintain access to safe, high-quality drinking water and fully enjoy the water resources they have,” Wardinski said.

Written by Cameron Warren