Engineering student Bailee Kelty is overcoming all odds to promote water-sustainability.

By Cindy Hollenbeck

In 2018, Washington State University STEM major Bailee Kelty was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. While benign means “non-cancerous,” it does not mean harmless. The diagnosis brought with it anxiety, costly medical bills, and side effects—including exhaustion, seizures, and memory loss.

Bailee calls herself a “type-A” personality, very high energy, always ready to tackle life’s challenges. And because she has such a wide smile and bubbly personality, you might never guess that in addition to her packed schedule, she fits in blood tests every three months, a biannual doctor’s appointment, and an annual MRI.

WSU is fortunate to have gained a student like Bailee. She grew up in Richland, Washington, not far from the Hanford nuclear site, which has influenced her career choice. Coming of age in Richland’s “nuclear culture,” coupled with numerous vacations to the nearby Seaside, Oregon, Bailee gained a deep love of and respect for sustainable water management—meeting water needs now without comprising future needs.

When Bailee was a senior in high school, her father suggested she go into civil engineering to cultivate her interest. But, why WSU? “My father is a Coug,” Bailee said. “The University has always been part of my life.” She applied to and was accepted at nine different universities, but chose WSU because of the civil engineering program.

Bailee spent her first year at WSU Tri-Cities, not far from Richland. After visiting WSU Pullman, however, she said, “I felt like I belonged there.” Immediately, Bailee got involved on campus and made a good impression on her colleagues. Becky Dueben, mentor from the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture (VCEA) Ambassador Program, said, “Bailee is a fantastically positive student who has overcome serious health issues. She is one of the hardest working, most compelling people I know.”

In addition to her work as a VCEA ambassador, and math tutor, Bailee conducted research with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Nick Engdahl, renowned for his water resources work. In collaboration with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Bailee and Engdahl helped maintain and restore streambeds through culverts, which act as a barrier to fish passage.

The work stands at the forefront of sedimentation research and the restoration of threatened fish habitats in Washington state. Bailee also helped refurbish the dilapidated Albrook Hydraulics Laboratory at WSU Pullman. Today, the Albrook Lab Boundary Dam model is getting its final paint and crack seals. After completing the WSDOT research this summer, Bailee hopes to secure an internship.

In her free time, Bailee works out with the WSU Aerial Dance Society (ADS), a group that promotes fitness, dance, creativity, empowerment and confidence through the acrobatic and artistic form of pole dance, aerial silks, and aerial hoop (lyra). Bailee’s also part of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE)—the world’s largest advocate for women in engineering and technology.

“I owe the SWE a lot,” she said, “for my personal and professional growth.” She’s enrolled in a photography class as well. To her fellow students, she says, “I recommend joining a club completely unrelated to your major and one you can stay with throughout your college career.” The Aerial Dance Society seems to have given Bailee physical and mental flexibility.

Over the past couple of years, she said that she’s learned to be more adaptable. “Seeing my carefully laid plans fall apart has helped me be less ‘type-A’,” she said, smiling. “Once, I was enrolled in so many credits over a couple of semesters that I was exhausted and overwhelmed.” She seems to have gained a new perspective: instead of taking more classes, she’s taking care of herself.

Over the 2019 Christmas break, Bailee had her annual MRI and learned her tumor had shrunk, so the endocrinologists were keeping her on the current medication. Unfortunately, over time, the medication interferes with her ability to live up to her standards. “I get frequent headaches,” Bailee said, “so it’s hard to focus and recall information.” Never one to be deterred, she spends extra time on homework, visits professors during office hours, and studies with her STEM colleagues.

In May 2020, Bailee will walk at commencement with her friends, then come back in the fall to finish a couple classes. Private support from the University Achievement Award Scholarship has helped fund her education and medical treatment. After graduation, she hopes to find a job at a successful company with strong values, and one that encourages true collaboration in project building.

Before landing a job, however, Bailee plans to visit family in Australia. Her dream job would be to work overseas in water sustainability.