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Water quality scientist, car enthusiast, artist

How a ceramics class inspired Charlotte Roadcap to pursue an unexpected career.

Charlotte Roadcap spends her workdays inside Denver Water’s water quality lab, testing water samples, working with complex instruments and analyzing data to ensure Denver’s 1.5 million people have safe, high-quality drinking water.

Charlotte Roadcap joined Denver Water as a water quality technician in January 2021. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

But before coming to Denver Water in early 2021, Roadcap started her career on what may seem like a completely different path: art.

Throughout her life, Roadcap heard about the strict divide between art and science. But her experience has shown her that the two are more similar than one might think.

Roadcap has fond childhood memories of hours spent exploring the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and working on cars with her dad, but she also had a passion for art.

Some of Roadcap’s fondest childhood memories are of working on cars with her dad. Here, she replaces the clutch in her 2003 Mini. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

When the time came to choose a career path, she decided to follow her dream of becoming an artist. 

She enrolled in the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and met many people who became admired and trusted mentors.

One of the most influential people in her life was a local artist she worked with, Clark Richert

“He created the most amazing geometric paintings. It was fascinating to see how he used math and geometry and incorporated it into his art. I learned so much from working in his studio,” Roadcap said.

“People often think of art and science as two completely different subjects. Throughout my life I’ve always been drawn toward both, and as I learned more about art, I discovered they are very complementary,” she said. 

More women in science: Patty Brubaker was the only female in her high school physics class. Today she runs a water treatment plant.

Roadcap was inspired by her mentor and professor, Martha Russo, who began her career as a microbiologist and later moved into the art arena. 

“Martha creates these beautiful, amazing installations that have a biological quality to them. They are organic and anatomically inspired pieces that are so intricate and breathtaking,” said Roadcap.

Everywhere she looked, Roadcap saw a convergence of art and science. 

Although her work as a scientist is highly technical, Roadcap finds art everywhere, like what can be seen in this microscope as she analyzes plankton in a water sample. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

And after nearly two years in art school, she began thinking more seriously about her future as an artist. 

“I put my heart and soul and hundreds of hours into each of my paintings.  My paintings tell the story of my life, and the thought of selling them was devastating. I knew I just couldn’t do it,” she said.

It was a ceramics class that turned Roadcap’s thoughts to chemistry as a potential career choice.

Experimenting with different chemical combinations to create various types of pottery glazes, she was energized and intrigued. She started learning more about chemistry, which reignited her childhood interest in science.

Roadcap decided to pivot away from art and enroll at the University of Colorado Boulder to pursue a degree in chemistry. 

“It was really wild. I had never even taken a chemistry class in high school, and it was all totally new to me,” she said. 

Before the semester started, Roadcap spent six weeks backpacking in Europe. Packed in her suitcase alongside clothes and toiletries was a book, Chemistry for Dummies, which she read cover to cover to prepare for her new adventure. 

“Art is such a passion for me, and I knew that whatever career I found in the science field, I had to have a similar passion for it.” 

One of Roadcap’s favorite parts of her job is learning about all the instruments and how they work. This device is used to test for ammonia. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

Born and raised in Colorado, Roadcap’s goal was to find a career where she could make a difference in her community. 

She found that opportunity in water.

Roadcap graduated from CU Boulder with a chemistry degree and got a job as a water treatment plant operator with the city of Thornton

She learned all she could from her co-workers, finding many mentors along the way. One such mentor was colleague Nicole Poncelet-Johnson, who at the time managed Thornton’s treatment plant. Poncelet-Johnson joined Denver Water in 2017 as director of Water Quality and Treatment.  

“At Thornton, Nicole gave me a chance,” Roadcap said. “She hired me right out of college and with no experience. She saw potential in me, and that inspired me to work even harder. It was so inspiring to see this amazing woman as a leader in the industry.” 

Over the next three years, Roadcap earned all of her required certifications. Her goal: to work in a water quality laboratory.

Roadcap’s hard work paid off when she was hired as a technician in Denver Water’s lab in January 2021.

Roadcap (right) with a few of her colleagues in Denver Water’s lab (from left) Ariana Villarreal, Mollie Edwards, Abigail Wright, Kaitlyn Counter and Cassidi Rosenkrance. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

“To say I love my job is an understatement. Holding a water sample and knowing the significance of what I am testing for and the impact it has on my community — it’s just absolutely amazing.”

As part of Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program, Denver Public Schools sends water samples to the lab for testing. It was work that nearly brought tears to Roadcap’s eyes. 

“The first time I held a lead sample from DPS, it truly hit me how important our work is. We’re making a difference for families, children, for everyone, by making sure their water is safe,” she said.

Roadcap mixes chemicals to create phenolate, a reagent for ammonia testing. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

And it’s her passion and connection to Denver Water’s mission that continues to inspire her. 

When the Marshall fire broke out in Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021, and devastated the community — destroying homes, businesses, and infrastructure — water in those areas also was impacted. 

Denver Water’s laboratory worked with community partners and other water utilities, taking in water samples to help with testing requirements. 

“I was so honored to help in a small but important way. I was the analyst who tested the bacteriological samples to help ensure the water was safe for the people in those communities. Some of the sample’s locations were places that I frequented in college. It was truly a humbling, rewarding experience,” she said.

In addition to water quality testing, one of Roadcap’s favorite parts of her job is learning about the complex instruments in the lab — taking them apart, fixing them and discovering how they work.

It’s a nod to an interest Roadcap has had since childhood and a hobby she continues to enjoy today: cars. 

Her interest in mechanics and machinery was nurtured by her father, and the two spent hours in the garage working on cars together. Their first restoration project: a white MGB (a small British coupe). 

Roadcap’s red 1972 Austin Mini, “Ruby.” Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

More recently, Roadcap — who was co-president of the CU Boulder Car Club during college — restored the first car she bought when she was 17: a red 1972 Austin Mini she affectionately calls “Ruby.” 

She believes she’s found the perfect fit for all her passions. 

“Not many people get to say they truly love what they do. I get to make a difference in the lives of others while also doing so many things I enjoy: art, chemistry, working on instruments. I feel so incredibly lucky,” she said.

Roadcap’s two babies are her red 1972 Austin Mini, “Ruby,” and her five-year-old pup “Sully.” Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

Although switching her school and major mid-stream was difficult, Roadcap wouldn’t change a thing about her journey.

Although switching her school and major mid-stream from art to chemistry was difficult, Roadcap is glad the decision led her to Denver Water. Photo credit: Charlotte Roadcap.

“Changing my focus was hard, but I encourage anyone who feels a passion or calling toward something to do whatever it takes to make your dream a reality. It’s going to be difficult. You’ll struggle financially, emotionally and maybe even physically, but life is just way too short not to take the chance.”