Michelle GIRTS '70, Environmental Scientist

A dedicated environmental scientist who has worked in both corporate and research settings, Michelle GIRTS ’70 has been building successful businesses around technology and talent for 35 years. Prior to her retirement, Michelle worked for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Portland Water Bureau as an environmental science technical specialist collecting samples for water quality lab testing, programming data analysis, and reviewing and reporting the status of water quality throughout the system and the impacts of activities in the watershed. She then moved on to work as an environmental scientist for engineering company, CH2M Hill, where she developed and commercialized the innovative, low-cost treatment technology of engineered wetlands. Since her retirement, Michelle has been named to the Clark County Clean Water Commission, is an active volunteer in her local community, a master gardener, and flies a Cirrus single-engine airplane with her husband in her spare time.

Years at Ellis
Grade 10 to Grade 12
B.S. Biology, Portland State University; M.S. Biology, West Virginia University; All But Dissertation (ABD) towards Ph.D. Water Resources Engineering, Oregon State University
Vancouver, WA
Environmental Scientist, Executive Vice President, Engineering Consulting Firm

How did you get into your line of work?

I worked as a consulting environmental and wetland scientist for 27 years with the engineering firm CH2M HILL, which employed 3,500 engineers and scientists when I was hired and more than 40,000 at its peak. I progressed through the career path of technical specialist, project and client manager, marketing manager, area office manager, and ultimately director of a global, corporation-wide program for which I reported to the Chief Executive Officer.

Prior to CH2M Hill, I worked at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry doing computer database management and programming. I then completed the biology undergraduate program at Portland State University while I worked as an environmental science technical specialist for the City of Portland Water Bureau. As a result of some volunteer work I did with a friend for The Nature Conservancy in wetlands, wetlands became my ecosystem of specialty. I worked for the federal government in the Library Research Center, Bureau of Mines, developing the technology of wetland treatment systems for mine drainage. But I soon realized that I wanted a broader range of applied experience, so I sought out the best engineering firm through which I could work with top quality engineers to design, build, and operate the best wetland systems.

Is there a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant of your career?
Because I was a developer and marketer of a novel technology, as I progressed in my career, I became known for innovative systems thinking and my ability to work with people in many parts of the firm to start new projects and programs. I was asked to consider heading up a program that had failed several times before, trying to capture and monetize the innovative ideas CH2M HILL's creative employees used in solving problems for clients. Saying yes to this opportunity was very risky because several of the company's leaders had failed to develop a successful program before, and also because I knew that in doing so, I would have to cut ties (at least for a while) with the regional organization and business group. In the final reckoning, the program did manage to increase awareness of and protection for valuable innovations (with quantifiable gains), and several inventions did realize monetary benefits for the company.

What lessons did your work life teach you?
I think the most important lesson is to always be looking for doors opening, or ways to make a door open, and to exhaustively evaluate any opportunity and how one might modify that opportunity to suit, before contemplating saying "no".

For Ellis students reading this: is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? What would you want them to know?
Ask questions of those who have gone before you and listen thoughtfully, not for advice, but to learn of different possible approaches and to be able to best pick your path on the basis of your own values, capabilities, and interests. Say yes to opportunities after asking questions, even if they don't exactly match your "plan". Be yourself—it is really the only way you will succeed and be happy.

What do you think are the advantages to Ellis’ all-girls environment?
It allows girls to find their own path, undeterred by the status quo, and to learn to work together to reinforce, invigorate, and nourish women's capabilities. It insists on the use of teaching methods that are appropriate for girls while preparing them to be team players and leaders on the current and future world stage.

We often talk about girls developing their voice at Ellis, what does that mean to you? How do you use your voice?
Ellis provides an environment in which girls can speak and hear their and other women's voices, thoughts, and approaches. Having a setting in which girls can test various approaches to verbal communication, persuasion, proposing problem solutions, giving feedback, etc. to see what gets the results they want to achieve is critical for their success in future settings. I use my voice in many ways: to inform, persuade, question, console, encourage, celebrate—and I am still learning about what works best in any given situation. Mostly, life has reinforced what I learned at Ellis: that one must speak up at the right time and with respect for all speakers and listeners, and listen thoughtfully to their voice too.

Can you share a time in your life when you have been particularly brave or bold?
If I hadn't learned mountaineering and rock climbing years before it became popular, many of the "bold moves" in my career and personal life would not have been possible. My love of the alpine biology, geology, and vistas led me to undertake training to climb safely, to mitigate my fear. The rigor and dedication involved in gaining strength and endurance, learning that my body had capabilities and capacity I hadn't tapped, grew a sturdy platform of significant self-confidence. Building trusting relationships with climbing partners also helped me appreciate the give and take of teamwork. My climbing experiences culminated in a women's expedition to Peru, a reward to myself for earning my bachelor’s degree. I think it is important to always be learning, trying some activity in an endeavor for which one might not think one is "a natural”, and more recently for me that is piloting a single-engine airplane.

How did Ellis stimulate your intellectual curiosity and creativity? 
Ellis broadened my knowledge of the world beyond textbooks and neighborhoods—it was my springboard to new ideas, cultures, and geographies. I was exposed to the breadth and depth of artistic, literature, and historic potential through Ellis courses and exchanges with teachers in small class settings. Ellis teachers insisted that I ask why, and why not? It was one of the most stimulating environments I have had the honor to experience.

What is the most important lesson you learned at Ellis?
That women are smart, courageous, capable leaders—and lifelong good friends.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Curious. Energetic. Determined.

How do you spend your free time?
Hiking, gardening, flying, volunteering, and genealogy research. These days I'm Zoom host for many of these endeavors! I want to learn watercolor painting and refresh my stained glass creating, but some of the former list is going to have to end or the day will need to get longer.

Envision Her at Ellis

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