Career Story: Environmental Scientist For The EPA

Environmental Scientist For The EPA

Job Title: Environmental Scientist

Education: M.S. 1976 Poultry Science (emphasis in microbiology and ecology), University of Georgia, Athens, GA •• B.A. 1970 Biology, Radford College, Radford, VA •• A.A. 1968 Liberal Arts, Ferrum Junior College, Ferrum, VA ••

Previous Experience: I applied for and was hired as a Biological Laboratory Technician at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laboratory in Athens, GA in 1972. My entire scientific career has been in this laboratory. My job descriptions changed as the needs of research changed over these 30 plus years. Biological Lab Tech, Chemical Lab Tech classifications changed back and forth several times. My duties evolved from culturing algae for an artificial stream study, to field sampling and photo-chemistry, and eventually to microbial degradation (MIBD) and hydrolysis (HYDROL)of organic chemicals such as pesticides (Both MIBD and HYDROL, are environmental break-down processes which occur in small and large water bodies). Eventually I also became involved in laboratory process automation and computer data acquisition and was promoted to an Environmental Scientist.

Job Tasks: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) research laboratory, where I work, is known as the National Environmental Research Laboratory (NERL), and is one of several Federal research labs scattered across the USA. This lab is operated under the Office of Research and Development (ORD). Our lab concentrates on what happens to toxic chemicals when they enter water. These toxic chemicals are usually pesticides and herbicides used in raising foods, or on lawns, and golf courses etc., but they also include heavy metals such as lead. We use environmental data or experimental data to predict what happens when these toxic chemicals find their way into our rivers, lakes, streams, and underground water sources.

Other EPA-ORD research labs, in other locations, concentrate on air quality, land use, and other environmental effects of human activities. Research laboratories do not enforce Environmental laws (however, our research and modeling efforts may support laws made, or being made, and therefore, support law enforcement activities). Enforcement and prosecution of environmental law violators is executed by the Regional EPA laboratories.

In the past, my typical day might have been spent going to local streams and obtaining water, sediment, and/or soil samples (and measuring water characteristics such as temperature and pH). Collected field samples were either analyzed in the laboratory for the presence of agricultural chemicals, or they are used to set up laboratory test sample mixtures to examine break down / persistence of a specific chemical of interest. Typically, tests measured length of time it took a chemical to break down into non-toxic compounds due to bacterial, chemical or sunlight exposures. Tests also determined the chemical structure(s) and concentration(s) of break down products, and checked to see if products were dangerous to humans or wild life. Minimal, infrequent travel out of state for training or field sampling was part of this job.

Presently, 90% or more of my day is spent at my desktop PC conducting literature searches, and downloading, and evaluating data from other federal sources to use in computer-run predictive models. Little or no travel is involved.

The models I support, use multiple data sets including NOAA weather data sets, stream flows (USGS data sets), run-off from land sources (like wash-off from parking lots, including oil, gas, antifreeze, tire compounds etc.) and graphical information system (GIS) data. When necessary, we collect data from field studies done locally, or at other EPA sites all around the USA. The models are designed to predict the interaction of natural systems influencing movement of, and break-down of "pollutants" (toxic chemicals) in various environmental situations as well as potential for human exposures. The goal is to protect human health and our environment.

Best and Worst Parts of the Job: The best part of my current job is that I can come to work with a good conscience and a feeling that I contribute something of value to better our society. Additionally, we have 3 options of flexi-time scheduling and a Day Care facility on our campus.

The worst part of my current job is that I sit long hours at my computer and seldom get out into the field any more (and I'm getting fat). I love most field work, and miss it.

Job Tips:
1. Qualify yourself! Everything you do should be considered in the light of becoming more qualified and making contacts.

2. Be a good student in all your schooling subjects and take as many non-required courses that are interesting to you as you can manage well.

3. Many people don't take the time to thoroughly research the course work, and skills (and temperaments) necessary to qualify themselves for a job they think they want (let alone one they could do well and enjoy) - or they start out training for one vocation and find that something else is really what they want to do (However, they settled for a "C" grade in a past course when they needed "A" level understanding of that course work to do well in the more advanced course that is currently required to obtain the job they want).

4. If a main stumbling block is financial, there are a multitude of scholarships available at schools, universities, on-the-job-training, and public and private scholarships available on-line.

5. Deciding on a plan of attack:

1. First consider your natural talents, interests, and skills you've acquired in life up to this point. (Are you good with your hands? Are you artistic? Are you good with the gift of gab?). Then research what jobs are currently available, and which jobs may be developing in the future (such as now....with aging populations there soon will be a huge demand for health care professionals, therapists, doctors, and nursing home staff). Which current or predictable future jobs can use your skill set, and which ones would you feel good/confident/useful/fulfilled going to?

#2A. Take advantage of any student counselors, job fairs, on-line help you can find. Local universities may offer continuing education courses. One continuing education course I took when considering a career change, was for determining where my strengths were, and seeing what jobs could use me. I found a number of interesting occupations that I had no idea existed.

#2B. With your skill set and interests in mind, generally decide what field(s) or vocation(s) you'd like.

#3. Thoroughly research the minimum course work or formal training that is required to be in your field. Then have a hard look at where you are. If you want to be a chemist, weak math skills will kill you. You will either have to commit to a lot of extra work and tutoring, or find something like perfume chemistry which requires only clean living, a tolerance for being sequestered in a lab essentially alone, and a great sense of smell (and a willingness to move out of the USA probably).

#4. Look for opportunities to be a non-paid worker, shadowing someone in your field of choice ...or become an apprentice. The Federal government has programs for summer hires, and programs for part-time, unpaid student workers to come and expand their skill sets, expand their resume, and make important contacts in their field. If you think you want to be a vet, contact a local vet and ask if you can observe what they do for a day.

When I was trying to choose a vocation, a publication known as "What color is your parachute?" was a popular source of help for finding where you could contribute.

#5. As you qualify yourself for your hoped-for job, take as many courses or as much training as you can do well along the way. Your direction may change, and if it does you'll be prepared.

Additional Thoughts: My mistakes:

1. One was not looking ahead at likely future directions in my field of choice and constantly re-evaluating where I was versus where I eventually wanted to be. By the time I graduated with my advanced degree, a college degree in Biology was essentially equivalent to a High School diploma a decade before.

2. I should have re-evaluated the advancements and specializations of the ever changing biology field. If I had, I could have adjusted my course work to maximize my potential and widen my career field options.

3. Another bad choice was not taking high school math seriously. I did not pay attention in a middle-school math class because for weeks I found it unchallenging, and not nearly as interesting as reading Walter Farley's "Black Stallion". By the time I realized the class had moved on to solving more complex problems I had missed important foundation material. I struggled from that year on to scrape thorough math classes in a panic and with C knowledge of the material. That mistake has cost me dearly in knowledge, confidence, promotion potential, scientific potential and salary.

What I learned:

1. Constantly re-evaluate what you're doing and where it's heading you.

2. You are never "there". Learning is a life-long process and if you don't build learning into your vocation, you will be left behind.

3. Even people you consider dull can utter words of wisdom.

4. Always pay attention in class, even when it's boring: You may not be as smart as you think you are.

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