Unitywater microbiologist Dr Tracey Wohlsen has discovered a more efficient way to test water.
Unitywater microbiologist Dr Tracey Wohlsen has discovered a more efficient way to test water. Barry Leddicoat

Sisters are doing it for science

WOMEN have taken on the world, proving their ability to excel in any field of their choice.

So why would one woman want to spend her life taking crap from others?

Unitywater’s senior microbiologist Dr Tracey Wohlsen has spent the last 20 years collecting water samples to check for traces of E.coli – a type of faecal coliform bacteria.

For Dr Wohlsen, the fascination in faecal content in water has been about “helping people”.

And her determination and research has led to a profound breakthrough which could have global significance.

Dr Wohlsen has led a team at Unitywater for an initiative that detects E.coli bacteria in water samples in half the time previously required, and at a significantly lower cost.

This would help councils to be able to determine quickly the need to close access to a water source – particularly after a major flooding event.

“It means they can let the public know quickly about the quality of water,” Dr Wohlsen said.

Last weekend, she received the Queensland Water Industry Woman of the Year Award at the prestigious Australian Water Association’s State Awards for this research.

She is now in line to take out the national award.

The team led by Dr Wohlsen at Unitywater also won the Queensland Program Innovation Award. But Dr Wohlsen’s career path didn’t start with a search for sewage. She obtained a social diploma at QUT and her first job was at the Royal Brisbane Hospital working on ECGs.

“I then moved to Queensland Health and worked in the biological screening section where I tested food and water,” she said.

It was here she discovered her “love” for water.

“I felt like I was helping people,” she said.

It was a honeymoon at Golden Beach that nurtured a love for the Sunshine Coast.

“We went there from Brisbane and I always said I’d like to live here one day,” she said.

When the opportunity came up at Unitywater in 2007 with a microbiologist leaving, Dr Wohlsen knew the time had come and she moved to Caloundra.

She began researching how the team at Unitywater could streamline its water analysis.

As a result, six months ago the team started what Dr Wohlsen said was a totally new testing process.

She said Unitywater was the only council using the new process at the moment. But already other governments across the world had shown interest.

And while Unitywater could have looked at patenting the process and selling it off to the world, it was decided to make this vital research readily available to those other countries who needed it most.

“It gives the feel-good factor,” Dr Wohlsen said.