Women in Science: Sheelagh McCarthy

Sheelagh McCarthy is not a model — but she contributes to one. Learn more about this surface water quality scientist and computer modeler as she sits down with our reporter.

What do you do at Ecology?

"It's exciting and fulfilling to know that [my] scientific report is being used to help guide pollution clean-up activities..."
I work as a surface water quality scientist and modeler in Ecology’s Environmental Assessment Modeling & TMDL unit; I have worked at Ecology since 2016. My projects include Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) studies and other water quality improvement projects for polluted surface waters. These projects involve collecting samples in the field, analyzing data, using computer models and geographic information systems (GIS) to identify sources of pollution, and writing the results in a technical report.

I also work with a great group of scientists and engineers as part of the Salish Sea Modeling team. We use the Salish Sea Model, a powerful, complex modeling tool to simulate hydrodynamic and water quality processes. Results from this model are used to guide management decisions to protect water quality in Puget Sound.

Tell us about some of your recent work.

Woman in glasses looks up from her computer and smiles.
One exciting challenge as a scientist is finding new and different ways to present and communicate our scientific results. Recently, I created the Salish Sea Model results web map. This interactive mapping tool shares Salish Sea Model results that show the impact of excess nutrients on dissolved oxygen levels in Puget Sound. The application provides a visualization of model outputs and includes a series of engaging features to explore. I also worked with Teizeen Mohamedali, a female engineer on our Salish Sea Modeling team, to develop a Nitrogen in Puget Sound Story Map. This story map communicates the state of the science of nitrogen in Puget Sound through another type of interactive web map using a compilation of scientific data and research.  

Last year, I completed the East Fork Lewis River Temperature & Fecal Coliform Bacteria Source Assessment report. This report is now being used to inform implementation and restoration work in the watershed. It’s exciting and fulfilling to know that this scientific report is being used to help guide pollution clean-up activities so that people, fish, and all other living creatures can enjoy clean water!

What advice do you have for women who would like to work in a scientific field?

Advice: "Don't fear asking questions, try new things, and explore." Detail in text.

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions — Science is about critical thinking, so raise your hand in class, read books to learn more about a subject that interests you, and seek out a mentor.
  2. Try new things — Being a scientist requires a bunch of different skills. Our work tends to be interdisciplinary and having skills in other subjects such as writing, computer programming, or GIS, can be very beneficial.
  3. Explore — Science is fun! Most scientists in the environmental field are in it because they are inspired by the world around us and are seeking to understand it better.
I love that my job at Ecology allows me to study and protect the places where I spend my time outside of work. Growing up, I spent a lot of my time in and around the Great Lakes. As I learned more about climate change and environmental issues in high school and college, I decided to pursue a career in the environmental field. I started using computer models during graduate school and was drawn to this work because of the role they play in providing scientific support to identify solutions to improve water quality.