News | February 01, 2022

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Alumna dives deep into waterway health in southern Florida

Environmental studies grad works as science technician for South Florida Water Management District

Photo shows FGCU alumna
Amanda Gray in her work habitat, sampling and documenting water conditions. Photo submitted.

With views of sparkling water and emerald mangroves for miles, Amanda Gray keeps an eagle eye on the vital watershed network that flows through our state.

After graduating from Florida Gulf Coast University in summer 2017 with a major in environmental studies and a minor in biology, Gray found herself gravitating toward a career in water quality.

Landing at the South Florida Water Management District as a science technician, her job encompasses researching the health and levels of waterways throughout the southern part of the Florida peninsula.

Based in West Palm Beach, Gray leads water collection for sampling and monitoring from Miami and Homestead all the way over to Fort Myers. She explores the depths of  the expansive monochromatic blankets of water, sea grass, mangroves and estuaries in the Everglades to the coastal habitats where saltwater and freshwater merge.

Working closely with a cohort of scientists who traverse the entire state monitoring the health and levels of water, with a goal of projecting and managing future adverse conditions, Gray describes the interconnectivity of the research.

“I collect many different water samples, testing for different nutrient levels in the water,” Gray said. “We also deploy instruments to collect more data over an extended period of time. There are other teams that go more north, too, and the samples all go to the lab for evaluation.”

photo shows otter
A river otter poses for Gray’s camera.

To accomplish that, she travels through the workday cruising and sampling on boats and a helicopter, and as a bonus, collecting breathtaking photos to share these exclusive sights through social media.

With an early interest in photography, wildlife and the environment, Gray has long embarked on adventures through her native Alachua County parks with her camera in tow. Hiking through Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and swimming in the crystal-clear springs near Gainesville, she always knew she was going to pursue a career that would allow her to be outside in nature.

That’s where the science comes in. Gray spent a few semesters pursuing engineering at FGCU, but through a combination of factors during a chemistry course, her career trajectory changed.

photo of bird
Amanda Gray captured a snail kite light in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

Mary Abercrombie recalls Gray in her environmental chemistry class during her own first semester teaching at FGCU. A hydrology scientist and professor, Abercrombie knows the importance of monitoring and tracking water quality throughout Florida.

She also knows the challenges students face early on in chemistry that may discourage them from succeeding and elevating their career opportunities.

“I was one of those young women in high school that decided I can’t do math or science, but a mid-career pivot led me to pursue hydrology,” Abercrombie said. “I’ve been inspired to help others to decide not to ditch math and science. Seeing Amanda out in the field applying her science skills – hopefully it will inspire other women to say, ‘Wow, what a cool job.’”

photo shows everglades
Gray’s aerial view of part of her workplace, Everglades Wildlife Management Area.

She added that by the end of the course that explores the pH levels in water and the toxicity of algae, “you may not love chemistry, but at least you won’t hate it.”

For Gray, the segue into the hydrology field led her to a career that she loves, pairing her passion for learning and engaging through conservation efforts and sharing perspective through photos.

“Throughout the years, I’ve gotten better at photography and learning about different species,” said Gray. “I think my job allows me unique opportunities to take pictures of things most people don’t get to experience. Through that maybe they can learn some new things.”

photo hows bald eagles
Gray found a pair of bald eagles sharing a pine tree in LaBelle.

Bringing the wilderness and beauty of Florida to the forefront and sharing that perspective with the greater community is ultimately the hope when posting her stunning photos on her Instagram.

“The combination of art and science allows the general public to see and understand that this is important to us and for us,” Abercrombie said. “The class is about what can we do to make the outcomes better — the pieces of chemistry that help to understand algal blooms and air pollution.”

For Gray, showing us through imagery how the science and sampling is saving the fragile ecosystems that we depend on for health, economy and enjoyment is a big part of reinforcing the importance of the work and improving the outcomes.

“It’s heartwarming,” Abercrombie said. “You can see she’s in her element. That’s what I wish for all my students. Believe in yourself and discover that positive experience that leads on a pathway to preserving our environment.”