The Real Poop
You know it's time to call the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA, or both, when you look out your window one day and see something that looks like this:
A now-too-close-for-comfort volcano oozing white-hot lava in an apocalyptic sludge fest, spouting flames like a giant percolator of perchlorates and other toxic gunk...OR…
Exhibit B. Your lovely beachfront coated with sticky, smelly, slick crud, thanks to an oil rig explosion and oil spill that’s turning your property into a chemical dumping ground…OR…
Exhibit C. Signs trumpeting the imminent extinction of the local river due to acid rain.
What's an ordinary mortal to do?
Grieve not at the unnatural disasters that humankind has wrought, because at the ready is that unsung hero, or heroine, of the environmental scene:
The EPA scientist.
No kidding. And here's why.
The EPA belongs to the alphabet soup of federal agencies that supposedly keep our government running. The EPA and its scientists are doing their part to—guess what—protect the environment. They care about stuff like human health. The EPA scientists poke their noses into issues like clean air, computational toxicology, water quality, and global change.
Sounds like fun, eh? Well, EPA scientists think so, yes they do.
Still others are more interested in ecosystem services, nanotechnology, as well as pesticides and toxic substances. Basically, if it involves humans and the environment, you can bet the EPA has somebody looking into it.
Aside from research, the EPA also focuses on supporting regulatory policies that are already in place. Scientists in this division may test the fuel efficiency of newly manufactured cars to ensure they meet the standards already set by the EPA. Instead of focusing on a research topic, other labs focus on a geographical area, like the Gulf of Mexico. In that branch of the mighty sequoia that is the EPA, researchers will focus on issues near and dear to that particular area.
While scientists at the EPA conduct their own research, they also collaborate with scientists at universities and other research laboratories. This idea of collaboration is really common in science by tapping a variety of sources and talents, it adds a level of complexity to the types of research that can be produced.
It might seem like talking about the EPA can make your head spin since it has so much going on. While the agency does cast a mighty wide net, all scientific research at the EPA basically falls into two broad categories: problem-driven research where scientists focus on solving environmental problems, or core research aimed at gaining a better understanding of human health in general and what role the environment has to play in it.
There's a lot that goes into an EPA decision beyond the hard science—technological feasibility, justice, implementation costs. Science is largely separate from the decision-making gurus of the EPA. While it might seem bad for the ego to be kept out of that loop, it's for good reason. Keeping the science on its own prevents scientific distortion, or making the science say what lawmakers really want it to say. Science and policymaking are two important aspects of the EPA's work, but you don't want them mixing together. Like oil and water. Or hand soap and ice cream. Neither combination is very delicious.
Although the EPA is a federal agency, it doesn't just set up shop in Washington, D.C. It has labs all over the country. So establishing yourself as an EPA scientist doesn't necessarily mean that you have to learn D.C.'s metro system. There are regional EPA labs in other big cities, like Chicago, as well as the smaller ones, like Boise. It's okay, Boise—you know we love you.
Because the EPA conducts a variety of research projects, it hires a wide variety of scientists. Hardworking lab rats range from ecologists to biologists to physical chemists. Depending on their research questions, scientists at the EPA will spend their time in the field, the lab, or simply at a desk with their PC. Ecology-trained researchers who focus on water quality will likely spend much of their day collecting water samples, but chemists in the same department are likely to be running experiments indoors on those water samples, identifying potentially harmful chemicals in the water. You can tell who is who by whose socks are soggier.
EPA scientists are always learning—not just about their role in one particular area of the environment, but about how other fields are expanding and developing. A sound knowledge in the field does wonders for the creativity aspect of any research position. We hope you like reading, because the most common way to keep beefing up your knowledge base is to pore over the current literature. Scientists at the EPA may also spend a good bit of time writing protocols for how policies should be reviewed or writing research findings that may impact how a policy comes together.
But the EPA doesn't do everything in-house; consulting for the EPA is another way to impact the agency's research. Although these consultants technically don't work for the EPA, much of their day-to-day job is finding and gathering pertinent data for the EPA's use. For example, EPA consultants may gather information about chemical safety from studies in animal tests and other types of data. The end game is a snazzy packet of information about a slew of chemicals that provides information about how safe (or not safe) they might be to humans. The EPA can then use this information to further hone its own studies and research. If your ultimate goal is to work for the EPA, a consultant gig isn't a bad start, especially since many scientists start out there and, after proving their chops, move on to the main stage with better experience and understanding of the issues.
We think it's been pretty clear so far that EPA scientists come from lots of different scientific disciplines and perform quite varying types of research. So it's only fitting that the research equipment these scientists use also differs a lot. It's unlikely that any one EPA scientist will use both a mobile laboratory for convenient sample collection and the highly technical mass spectrometer to identify compounds within a water sample. But that just shows how varied the research is, how many different scientists can find their niche at the EPA, and how many fun toys can line the halls of the EPA research building.