By Katarina Fiorentino, B.H.S. Communication Sciences and Disorders ’21
Kaitlyn Sutton is an environmental administrator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She is a University of Florida alumna from Titusville, Florida, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Science from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and a Master of Public Health with a focus in environmental health from the College of Public Health and Health Professions. She is passionate about the outdoors and engaging in community outreach for the environmental health and sciences field. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, kayaking, visiting state parks, and spending time with her family, husband, and two-year-old son.
Sutton shares insights about her career journey, memories from her time as a UF student and how we can help protect Florida’s waterways.
What inspired you to pursue your Master of Public Health, and more specifically, the specialty of environmental health?
I was always a science nerd. As a little kid, I was the one playing with bugs and lizards in the dirt. My biggest inspiration for getting into the environmental field was my dad. He started his career in environmental health and safety at NASA. Needless to say, Daughters Day at work was incredible. I attended UF for my bachelor’s degree in environmental science, and it was here I became interested in the intersection between environmental and public health, and how those two disciplines can impact each other through fields such as exposure science. Additionally, my bachelor’s degree captured environmental policy. I took a Florida environmental policy course, and this solidified my desire to go into this field. Pursuing my M.P.H. with the concentration in environmental health was the logical next step because this path allowed me to dig deeper into these interests. There are so many cool opportunities to get involved in outside of the classroom at UF. I was able to work not only in the lab and outreach setting in undergrad, but also in my master’s program in the UF Aquatic Pathobiology Lab and in the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology for my final M.P.H. capstone project. I think a real selling point for prospective students is the range of opportunities that UF provides; this university truly has something for everyone. The opportunities provided allow you to focus and find whatever you are interested in.
What has your career path looked like since you graduated from UF?
I started at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as an environmental specialist II in the Water Quality Standards Program. I was in that position for a while, and then was able to move up to a career service environmental specialist II position, eventually moving to an environmental consultant role within that program. Now I work in a management role in the Standards Development Section of the Water Quality Standards Program. I’m relatively new to this position, so in the next five or 10 years I want to continue to grow and develop my leadership skills in environmental resource management. In the future, I’d like to take on additional outreach and mentorship roles to help inspire kids to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
“A big part of my job is learning how to break down a technical subject into something that is understandable and meaningful to the public in their everyday lives.”
What does your day-to-day look like and what are some key components of your job?
In my current day-to-day, I’m lucky in that I get to do a lot of different things. I have a public-facing job, so my staff and I are involved in planning, developing, evaluating and coordinating changes to Florida’s surface water quality standards to protect human health and aquatic life. We are the group that develops such standards for the whole state. I’m involved in reviewing and interpreting environmental and biological data. I also write technical reports, review plans of study, and provide guidance on how our water quality standards are implemented, both for internal staff and external sources. A big part of my job is learning how to break down a technical subject into something that is understandable and meaningful to the public in their everyday lives.
“Take advantage of getting that real-life experience with experts in your field. This could be internships, research assistantships, cross-training or shadowing opportunities. Once you’re in a role, don’t be afraid to ask questions and get out of your comfort zone. That’s how you learn from others and see what it really takes to be successful at a job.”
What surprised you about being in the field of environmental health and protection and what advice would you give to students considering your career?
What surprised me is the level of coordination that’s needed for projects to be successful. A lot of times when you’re a student, you get used to working independently to complete projects. In my role, it takes a village; it really is a team effort. I coordinate with other teams, the public and co-regulators at the local, state and federal levels for some of our projects. Although it can be challenging having that level of coordination between different people, once everyone’s involved and on board, the result is a more successful and meaningful project. You learn from different people and see what informs their perspectives.
In terms of advice, take advantage of getting that real-life experience with experts in your field. This could be internships, research assistantships, cross-training or shadowing opportunities. Once you’re in a role, don’t be afraid to ask questions and get out of your comfort zone. That’s how you learn from others and see what it really takes to be successful at a job.
What is one of your favorite memories from your time at UF?
One of my most memorable experiences was during my bachelor’s degree years. I was able to work as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Louis Guillette’s alligator biology lab. I helped with some projects the lab was conducting, including a project evaluating the potential impacts on American alligators from endocrine disrupting chemicals. That was a truly incredible experience. I did both lab work and field work; I can say I’ve sat on top of a 13-foot alligator, which was crazy. That’s what being a real Gator is. Another great memory attributed to my work in the lab was a community outreach experience. A class of kids came down from Harlem and New York City to take a tour of UF. The students came to our lab and we conducted outreach with them, and they interacted with some of the lab’s alligators. It was really inspiring to see all the kids’ faces and their excitement about science.
What is one thing we can do in our everyday lives to help protect Florida’s waters and waterways?
Something that is important is to practice responsible waste disposal. I know that’s not necessarily a glamorous answer, but I try to live by the ‘leave no trace’ motto. If waste isn’t disposed of properly, whether it’s household chemicals, pet waste or trash, these substances can eventually end up in our waterways. This can have an effect not only on the health of the environment, but also on people’s ability to engage in recreation and use the water for physical activity.