Evergreen Grad Protects Washington From Harmful Pathogens

October 11, 2018
Heather Kolowinski

Heather Kolowinski ’14 knew for a long time that she wanted to earn her bachelor’s degree, but it took her longer to figure out what she wanted to study. When she began to learn more about the field of environmental science, however, she was fascinated. Now, after completing her bachelor’s degree at Evergreen, Kolowinski works as a lab tech for the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), helping to protect people across the state from a wide variety of harmful pathogens on a day-to-day basis.

After graduating from high school, Kolowinski worked as a designer for several years, and found herself infatuated with natural materials and biodegradable products. She enjoyed the mathematics and problem solving involved in design, and began to realize that a degree in environmental science could propel her into an interesting new field of work.

“There was never an exact ‘a-ha’ moment for me,” Kolowinski recalled. “The further I delved into my studies the stronger I felt that this was the right pathway for me.”

After completing a civil engineering program at Centralia College, Kolowinski transferred to Evergreen in hopes of taking her study of science to the next level.

“[It] was not a college I had ever considered,” remembered Kolowinski. “But as I read through the course catalogue I was struck by the interesting programs offered.”

It was a tropical rainforest course, specifically, that stuck out to Kolowinski as she perused the many offerings displayed in the school’s course catalog. Not only did the program sound fascinating, it would give her a chance to travel to Costa Rica for three weeks. Having never before been out of the country, Kolowinski loved the idea.

When Kolowinski enrolled at Evergreen, she threw herself headlong into-upper level science courses, and quickly found herself tested in ways she never had been.

“I have never been more challenged or pushed harder than I was there,” said Kolowinski. “Nothing was handed to us.”

Now that she is a lab tech, Kolowinski believes that Evergreen helped shape her into a more valuable employee, and helped her grow into a stronger person. Though it was an environmental science course that originally peaked her interest, Kolowinski pursued a degree in natural science at Evergreen, which allowed her to learn about a wide variety of topics.

“I studied everything I could pack in to my degree beginning with a focus in geology,” said Kolowinski.

Though you wouldn’t guess it today, Kolowinski entered Evergreen with a substantial fear of public speaking.

“This is another thing I can give Evergreen applause for; every class you take involves one or more major presentation,” said Kolowinski. “By the end of my time there I actually enjoyed presenting and sharing my projects with a large audience.”

Beyond the many opportunities she got to practice public speaking, Kolowinski’s education at Evergreen was quite immersive. She spent a considerable amount of time studying and doing homework, and chose to sacrifice much of her free time in the pursuit of her degree.

“Study groups, intensive research, and problem solving were the norm,” Kolowinski said. “The learning style does not work for everyone, but those who make it through go on to be highly successful members of the scientific community.”

Before leaving Evergreen, Kolowinski had the chance to study chemistry, biology, biotechnology, physics, calculus, geology, ecology, tropical rainforests, microscopy, grant writing, and statistics. She also completed a pair of field internships—one with the Forestry Sciences Lab that involved surveying invasive plant species in the Chehalis Basin, and another with the Department of Transportation’s Wetland Monitoring Program.

“I fell in love with wetland science because it pulls together so many different areas of natural science and involves a lot of interesting field work,” said Kolowinski.

As a lab tech, Kolowinski appreciates the variety in her job. She says there’s always more to learn, and an unlimited amount of personal and professional development available to her.

Kolowinski’s primary job with WSDA is to make media for food, feed, and dairy testing. Each day she starts up the autoclaves, takes inventory of stock media, and completes any requested recipes. Each department within the laboratory tests a variety of consumable products for regulatory compliance, with tests scanning for pathogens such as E.coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, as well as quality indicator organisms like aerobic bacteria.

Kolowinski predicts that she will “wear many hats” for WSDA. Regardless of what that role is, however, Kolowinski is grateful to be working where she is.

“The work is interesting, the people are fabulous, and the lab is operated with high efficiency,” said Kolowinski. “I love everything about this department.”