Emerging Leader: Nicole Van Aken, Laboratory Manager

Roni Gehkle, Clean Water Magazine Editor, Emerging Leaders

Nicole Van Aken, the lab manager at Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District, values education as a means to achieve excellence. She takes a proactive approach to seeking educational opportunities for both her team and herself. Her belief in education also extends to her volunteer work within the industry.

 “Continued training is something I believe in,” she said. “There is a value in knowledge being expanded, and hearing it repeatedly is just as important.” Since she started at Fairfield-Suisun three years ago, her team has learned to appreciate Van Aken’s approach to continued learning.

“Nicole is notorious for discovering new online training opportunities for her subordinates,” said Raymona Shirmard, O&M Tech 4. “It is not uncommon for her to either send out emails encouraging her staff to register for educational classes or to register her staff herself, then send out the links for them to sign onto.”

In 2020, Van Aken was appointed as the vice-chair of the Laboratory Committee for the Bay Area Clean Water Agency (BACWA). She later became the chair of the committee in 2021. During her tenure as chair, Van Aken introduced a monthly series on the NELAC Institute (TNI) standards. This ongoing series is taught by a local consultant and expert in TNI.

“Nicole’s leadership style and rare interpersonal skills increased the number of participants not only in the BACWA arena but also on Zoom,” Shirmard said. “Her enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge are contagious, such that she was able to secure the next chairperson and vice-chair prior to the end of her reign.”

Van Aken, also while serving as the committee chair, established a document library for BACWA labs. The library contains helpful resources such as procedure examples from other labs and checklists used by different audit agencies. This was done to support and simplify the transition process for those venturing into the TNI standards.

The Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District manages an award-winning water resource recovery facility that can process up to 23.7 mg/d. It has several sewage pump stations and more than seven miles of truck sewers in central Solano County. This facility serves the cities of Fairfield, including Travis Air Force Base and Suisun City.

Currently, Van Aken is in the process of implementing the new TNI standards requirements for her lab. These requirements consist of over 1,000 rules, mainly focusing on traceable recordkeeping and extensive documentation. Van Aken has created new bench sheets to ensure the required documentation is accurate and reliable.
“Even the most recent auditor was impressed by the creative strategies she implemented with the XLIMS: Laboratory Information Management System by Ethosoft to ensure precise documentation,” Shirmard said.

Before working as a lab manager at Fairfield-Suisun, Van Aken worked as a lab supervisor and environmental specialist for Vallejo Flood and Wastewater for three years. Before that, she worked in the City of Benicia lab, which operates potable and wastewater.

Recognize accomplished water professionals who are making a significant, positive impact on California’s water by nominating them for an Emerging Leader feature in CWEA’s Clean Water Magazine. Details here >