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Tool Saves Millions of Dollars After Wildfire

2014 June 25

By Marguerite Huber

Wildfire conflagration on forested hillsides

Wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

Fueled by drought, disease, and suburban sprawl, wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres of land. Last August, the Elk Complex wildfire burned more than 130,000 acres east of Boise, Idaho. Nearly 75% of the burned area had high to moderate burn severity, threatening the ecosystem and the region’s water. Substantial fires have already flared up this summer around San Diego, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

Once a fire is about 80% contained, scientists and other experts from the Department of the Interior’s National Interagency Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team can go into the region and help develop emergency stabilization plans. They are aided by a resource—the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment (AGWA) tool—developed by researchers from EPA, the Agricultural Research Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and the University of Arizona.

Originally developed as a computer model for use managing and analyzing water quantity and quality, fire recovery teams are now tapping it to identify potential threats to people, wildlife, and the land from post-fire flooding and erosion.

Watershed managers use AGWA to identify and assess downstream impacts and risks from increased flooding and erosion resulting from fire-related changes to habitats and soils. The tool can also be used to target restoration efforts, such as where to apply mulch and seed with native plant stock, to reduce such downstream risks.

“AGWA is a good example of a science product developed between two leading federal research agencies with mutual interest,” said EPA research ecologist William Kepner. “The tool provides a practical application with immediate benefits.”

For the Elk Complex wildfire, the BAER team estimates it saved approximately $7,000,000 to $8,000,000 by using AGWA to target 2,000 acres for treatment instead of the initial 16,000 acres identified through more traditional methods.

“AGWA is able to help the team develop a stabilization plan where post-wildfire impacts pose immediate and significant threats to people and property,” Kepner adds.

Additionally, the emergency response team has successfully used the tool for post-fire watershed assessments following fires in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Idaho, and Washington. More than 8,000 users, spanning six continents, 163 countries, and 4,903 cities, have registered to use the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment tool .

The AGWA tool has been included as an ecosystem services analysis tool in the new EPA EnviroAtlas, and can be downloaded here. It provides an important resource for meeting the challenge of longer, more destructive wildfire seasons.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Open Science and Cyanobacterial Research at EPA

2014 June 23

By: Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie, and Bryan Milstead

Green, algal-filled pond

Algal bloom containing cyanobacteria.

It wasn’t long ago that science always occurred along a well-worn path. Observations led to hypotheses; hypotheses led to data collection; data led to analyses; and analyses led to publications. And along this path, data, hypotheses, and analyses were held close and, more often than not, the only public-facing view of the research was the final publication.

Science has come a long way with this model.  However, it was conceived when print was the main media and most scientific questions could be investigated by few scientists over a short period of time.

Then came computers. Then came the internet.

Just like in every other aspect of modern life, these advances are greatly impacting science. It has changed who conducts our science, how we share it, and how others interact with scientific information. All of these changes are playing out through the increasing openness of all parts of the scientific process.

This broad area has been defined as having several components. These components suggest that “open science”:

  • is transparent (and, of course, open)
  • includes all parts of research (data, code, etc.)
  • allows others to repeat the work
  • should be posted on an open and accessible website (while protecting Personally Identifiable Information, etc.)
  • occurs along a gradient (i.e. not just a binary open vs. not open)

At EPA, we are learning how to make our research on cyanobacteria and human health (for more info join our webinar) meet those criteria.  We are implementing open science in three ways: (1) making our work available via open access publishing; (2) providing access to the code used in our analysis; and (3) making our data openly available.

Several members of our research group have embraced open access options for publishing their research. For instance, our colleague Elizabeth Hilborn and her co-authors published results of their study—examining a group of dialysis patients following exposure to the cyanobacteria toxin microcystin—in one of the pioneering open access journals, PLoS ONE. Also in PLoS ONE, EPA scientist Bryan Milstead and his collaborators published a modeling method to combine the U.S. Geological Survey’s SPARROW model (a modeling tool for interpreting regional water-quality monitoring data), lake depth, lake volume, and EPA National Lakes Assessment data to estimate nutrient concentrations.

As our work progresses, we will continue to choose open access journals. In our experience, this has allowed our research to reach a larger audience and we can more easily track the impact through readership levels using available tools such as PLoS Article Level Metrics.

We are also sharing our data. Currently, this is accomplished through supplements added to publications and through sites such as the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway. We plan to expand these efforts via data publications, version-controlled repositories, and through the development of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that provide access to data for developers and other scientists.

The goal of these efforts, and more (stay tuned for a future post on how coding fits in to open science), is to increase the reproducibility of our work (but challenges remain), reach broader audiences, and eventually have a greater impact on our understanding and management of harmful algal blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie and Bryan Milstead study greenwater for a living. If you have questions for them, join the webinar on June 25th or follow the twitter chat on June 26th using #greenwater.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Wetlands: Earth’s Kidneys

2014 June 19

By Marguerite Huber

Stream restoration research

Stream restoration research

Our organs are vital to our health, with each one playing a significant part. Kidneys, for instance, filter our blood to remove waste and fluid. Wetlands are often referred to as “Earth’s kidneys” because they provide the same functions, absorbing wastes such as nitrogen and phosphorous. When excess amounts of these substances—nutrient loading—flow into waterways it can mean harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and summer fish kills.

Recognizing the importance of wetlands, many communities are taking steps to protect, restore, and even create wetlands.

For example, many stream restoration projects include constructing wetlands to absorb stormwater runoff and absorb excess nutrients and other pollutants that flow in from a host of sources across the watershed (known collectively as nonpoint source pollutants).

These constructed wetlands can provide key elements to urban stormwater management because they help reduce the impacts of runoff after a rainstorm or big snowmelt event. Such runoff typically transports high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous and suspended solids from road surfaces into waterways.

One such type of wetland that may provide these kinds of benefits is the oxbow lake, so named because of their curved shape. These form naturally when a wide bend in a stream gets cut off from the main channel, but EPA researchers are taking advantage of a couple of oxbow wetlands created during stream restoration activities at Minebank Run, an urban stream in Baltimore County, MD.

The researchers are studying the oxbow wetlands to quantify how effective such artificially created wetlands are at absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous in an urban setting. If these types of wetlands are effective, then deliberately constructing oxbow wetlands could be an important nutrient management strategy in such landscapes.

From May 2008 through June 2009, the researchers analyzed water, nitrate (a form of nitrogen pollution), and phosphate flow during four storms to better understand the impacts of hydrology on the potential for the two oxbow wetlands and the adjacent restored streambed to absorb or release nutrients.

The results suggest that oxbow wetlands in urban watersheds have the potential to be “sinks” that absorb and store nitrogen. They also reinforced information pointing to the dynamic hydrologic connection linking water and nutrient flow between streams and nearby oxbow wetlands, findings that if confirmed through further investigation can be used to improve restoration efforts that improve water quality across entire watersheds.

When it comes to phosphorus, the researchers found that oxbows don’t function as “sinks,” but “sources,” that contribute a net increase of the nutrient. They hypothesize that this is because the nutrient is released from wetland sediments during storms or other similar events. Future studies are needed to investigate the magnitude of phosphorous release, and how important that contribution is across the watershed.

Just like how our kidneys are an essential aspect of the human body, wetlands are an important aspect of nature. Retaining additional nutrients and treating non-point source pollutants help give natural and constructed wetlands the affectionate nickname of “Earth’s Kidneys.”

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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When Green Goes Bad

2014 June 9

Flyer banner for "When Green Goes Bad" webinar

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

When you think about the environment, what color comes to mind? Green, right? Because in everything we know in the environment “Green is Good.”

And while that is very often true, in the case of lakes and ponds that suddenly go green, it is most likely the result of an algae bloom, which, increasingly, contain many harmful cyanobacteria.  Also known as “blue-green algae,” some species of these tiny, photosynthetic aquatic organisms produce toxins. The impacts of these harmful algal blooms are widespread and often not good. Not good at all.

From acute adverse human health impacts such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems (yuck) to known deaths of animals (keep the family dog out of green water, please!!), blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts.

To better understand how algal blooms impact human health, identify the toxicity of cyanobacteria, predict the probability of bloom occurrences, and share this information broadly, our researchers have been working on a research project focused this topic since 2012.

The researchers involved in the project will be sharing what they have learned during a webinar on Wednesday, June 25 from 12:00 to 1:00pm as part of EPA’s Water Research Webinar Series.

We hope you will join them to hear an overview of the breadth of their algae bloom research, and learn details about ecological modeling they conducted on cyanobacterial blooms in U.S. lakes. They will explain how they embraced the concept of “Open Science”—the movement to make scientific research and data accessible to the public.

And if that’s not enough, they will also be available for a twitter chat on June 26 from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. You can submit questions now by using #greenwater or you can wait until the day of the chat. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

To register for the webinar, please send an email to sswr@epa.org with your name, title, organization and contact information.

Meet our Scientists

Jeff Hollister, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Jeff Hollister received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Rhode Island. His past experience is in applications of geospatial technologies to environmental research and broad-scale environmental monitoring, modeling, and assessment. His current research focuses on how nutrients drive the risk of cyanobacterial blooms in lakes and ponds.

Betty Kreakie, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Betty Kreakie earned her Ph.D. in integrative biology from the University of Texas. Her work focuses on the development of spatially-explicit landscape level models that predict how biological populations and communities will respond to human-caused influences, such as nutrient and contaminant pollution, climate change, and habitat conversion.

Bryan Milstead, Ph.D.
EPA post-doctoral research ecologist Bryan Milstead received his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University for work on small mammal population dynamics in Chile. Before coming to EPA, he worked for the U.S. National Park Service and for the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. His current work focuses on understanding how nutrient over-enrichment affects the aesthetic quality and risk of cyanobacteria blooms in lakes.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry communicates the many cool things happening in water science for EPA and hates #greenwater. She urges everyone to think twice about what fertilizers they use on their lawn and encourages pet owners to “pick up the poop” to reduce nutrient pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A New Frontier for Air Sensors 2014

2014 June 6

By Dustin Renwick

palm-sized air quality sensor

Compact air quality sensor fits in the palm of your hand.

The wearable market has expanded its product line—from smart glasses and smart watches to dozens of different fitness tracker wristbands and T-shirts that interact with the world around you.

What you don’t see in these gadgets is the tiny technologies that make it possible for your T-shirt to light up or for you to tap your wrist and see how many calories you’ve burned.

Similar to how computers shrunk from the size of rooms to the size of your front pocket, sensors have also been developed in ever decreasing dimensions.

One of the major applications for EPA: sensors that measure air quality. Agency researchers and others can use these portable, real-time sensors in the environment to gain a more intricate picture of what’s happening in our communities.

We’ve hosted a competition won by a design for a wearable sensor that estimates a person’s exposure to air pollution. EPA grants fund broad cookstove research, some of which includes the use of air sensors to measure pollution from indoor cookstoves.

Last fall, EPA collaborators published a seminal paper on the sensor revolution in a top journal, Environmental Science & Technology. The journal received more than 5,400 submissions in 2013 on a variety of topics, and EPA’s research won first runner-up for best feature paper.

One of the most important parts of this field of study is the diversity of people interested in the work.

Next week, we’ll hold an air sensors workshop to spark more discussions and continue this important work advancing innovative air sensor technologies by bringing together scientists, policy experts, technology developers, data analysts, and leaders from government, industry, and community groups.

To learn more about the opportunities and challenges that air sensors present, register for the webcast of our workshop on June 9-10.

We’ll live tweet the event from @EPAresearch using #AirSensors.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Bringing EPA Research—and Confidence—to the Classroom

2014 June 2

By Dana Buchbinder

As an undercover introvert I never imagined myself returning to the chaos of middle school, but this spring I took a deep breath and plunged in. For ten Wednesdays I co-taught an afterschool air science apprenticeship for sixth and seventh graders in Durham, North Carolina. The curriculum, “Making Sense of Air Quality,” was developed and taught by two EPA researchers who have volunteered for the past three years with a not-for-profit educational organization.

Students demonstrate air pollution sensors

Making Sense of Air Quality: students demonstrate the air quality sensors they built.

I joined the ranks of these EPA “Citizen Teachers” to help close the opportunity gap in education. The public middle school where we taught serves students from low income families, with 84% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch programs. 15 students participated in our apprenticeship to learn career skills and become air science experts at their school.

At first it was challenging to relax in front of a room of squirmy kids, but I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to students’ needs. Lessons don’t always go as planned (okay, almost never), but patient teaching in hectic moments inspires students to become more observant scientists. When I could step back and appreciate the weekly progress, I recognized the class’s accomplishments.

The students built air sensors from kits an EPA researcher created for outreach. None of the middle schoolers knew electrical engineering or computer programming when we began, but they learned the foundations of these skills in just a few weeks. I watched one student who had struggled with air pollution vocabulary build a working air sensor from a diagram. Meanwhile, his classmate formulated a hypothesis about how her sensor would react to dust in the air.

We asked students to think like environmental scientists: Where would they choose to place air sensors in a community? How could they share what they learned about air pollution?

They saw air quality sensors in action during our field trip to the Village Green Project, an EPA community air monitor at a Durham County Library. Exploring the equipment gave the apprentices more hands-on practice with science.

In addition to teaching kids about EPA air research, this spring’s apprenticeship focused on two 21st century skills: technology and communicating science. These are career tools for a host of much-needed occupations, but are also vital to advancing research for protecting human health and the environment.

We challenged students to share their new air quality knowledge creatively. They designed posters for a community Air Fair and crafted rhyming “public service announcements” to explain how EPA’s AirNow School Flag Program helps young people stay healthy.

The highlight of the apprenticeship for me was standing back as the students showcased what they learned in a scientific presentation for parents, teachers, and scientists. Nearly 300 people attended this culminating event for all the spring apprenticeships. With remarkable professionalism our class explained figures on poster displays, operated their air sensors, and quizzed the audience with an air quality game.

The guests were impressed by the students’ knowledge and caught their enthusiasm in learning about air quality. Asked if the sensor measured pollen, one student said, “oh no, that’s much too big, we are measuring very tiny particles.” Such responses exhibited scientific thinking, focus, and vastly improved understanding of air pollution.

As Citizen Teachers, we were proud to see even the shyest kids present with confidence. These students reminded me that introverts can share passionately when strongly motivated by the subject. By the end of the apprenticeship I had gained my own confidence as an educator from this young flock of scientists.

About the Author: Dana Buchbinder is a Student Services Contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She hopes you will attend the upcoming Air Sensors Workshop, where speakers in Research Triangle Park, NC will present on air quality monitoring with students.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

How Did You Celebrate Earth Day?

2014 May 30

By Diane Simunek

Bird Feeder 9000

“Bird Feeder 9,000″

Earth Day has always been one of my favorite holidays, because adequate celebrations require little more than a walk through the park. A bike ride or a hike always seemed like enough to show my appreciation for the environment, and I couldn’t be happier with how little preparation was needed for these festive activities. Unlike for me, however, Earth Day for local middle schoolers of Corvallis, Oregon has involved significantly more planning.

Each year the researchers and other staff at EPA’s Western Ecology Division lab host a competition for local middle school students to channel their innovative sides and create something out of nothing.

This year the Re-use It or Lose It! Animal Edition event challenged students to create animal-themed masterpieces from reused, recycled, or salvaged items. Fourteen finalists were chosen and the students, as well as their parents, were invited to an Earth Day reception at the lab to showcase their projects. The event featured an ensuing awards ceremony announcing the winners.

The students had a choice between two categories, “Functional” or “Fantasy,” around which they could focus their projects. A number of creative entries were seen, from a television turned into a cat bed to a mason bee box. Top honor in the Functional category went to Lauren Dye of Cheldelin Middle School for “The Bird Feeder 9,000,” which she constructed using a stainless steel pot and lid, forks and spoons, and bottle caps with beads strung on fishing line to add flair.

Spotted Owl Earth Day sculpture

Northern spotted owl

The Fantasy category was won by Megan Mayjor of Franklin Middle School and her sculpture depicting a Northern spotted owl, which just happens to be the subject of a population model developed by an EPA researcher from the lab (read more about it in our newsletter). The piece was assembled with brown paper, corrugated cardboard, and an intricate attention to detail seen in the decoration of each feather. “I feel very happy and excited that I won! My rabbit actually seems to like the owl,” Megan said.

Congruent with the competition, the trophies the winners were awarded were also creatively constructed with reusable material by EPA chemist Bill Rugh. He used wood items from Habitat for Humanity, seed pods, plastic twist-ties, screws, burnt out toaster elements, and coffee grounds. Appropriately, the elaborate trophies were presented to the finalists by lab director Tom Fontaine.

Although my own Earth Day celebrations may be effortless in comparison, these students have put in the time, effort, and imagination to make remarkable results. They developed an idea, acquired the material, and built their creations all in a gesture supporting and appreciating our environment. I’ll be thinking about them on my next hike.

About the Author: Diane Simunek is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Supporting Innovation for Cleaner Burning Cookstoves and Cleaner Air

2014 May 28

By Jim Johnson

The end of May is always one of my favorite times of year. It includes Memorial Day, the official holiday to honor the service of our dedicated military personnel and military veterans, and my birthday.

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, the end of May also coincides with the time of year when the evening air fills with the unmistakable scent of backyard grilling. Barbeque season. Here in this country, that distinctive odor of smoke is associated with tasty food, relaxing, and good times spent with friends and family.

But for most of the world’s population, the smell of an open fire is something completely different. It’s not nostalgic or a welcome diversion from the norm, but a necessity.

Nearly three billion people worldwide rely on burning fuels such as wood, plant matter, coal, and animal waste. And because most of that occurs indoors, it’s a health hazard, too.  The World Health Organization estimates that exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves leads to 4.3 million premature deaths per year.

Cookstove researcher at work

EPA is a leader in conducting and supporting clean cookstove research.

What’s more, it’s not just a local problem. The smoke from traditional cookstoves is a major source of black carbon, an air pollutant linked to a range of impacts associated with our changing climate, including increased temperatures, accelerated ice and snow melt, and changes in the pattern and intensity of precipitation.

And that brings me to another reason why the end of May this particular year is even a bit more special for me than usual: Yesterday, EPA announced almost $9 million in research grants awarded to six universities to help usher in a new generation of clean, efficient cookstoves.

Funded through our Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, the research will focus on measuring and communicating the benefits of adopting cleaner cooking, heating, and lighting practices. The impact of the work will improve air quality and protect the health of billions of people, as well as slow climate change—a benefit for everyone, and the global environment, too.

The universities and their research are:

  • Colorado State University researchers will provide new cookstoves to rural areas in China, India, Kenya, and Honduras to explore how their adoption will impact and improve emissions, chemistry, and movement of indoor smoke; they will also assess health and climate impacts.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers will investigate how local resources in rural communities in Alaska, Nepal, Mongolia, and China affect the acceptance of cleaner heating stoves, and take measurements to learn how their use impacts air quality and carbon emissions.
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis researchers will measure changes in air quality and health outcomes from cleaner cooking and heating technologies in China, and model regional weather, air quality, exposure and human health impacts.
  • University of California, Berkeley researchers will explore the relationship between household and village-scale pollution to understand the effectiveness of using cleaner-burning cookstoves.
  • Yale University researchers will use socioeconomic analyses, emissions and pollution measurements, and global climate modeling to investigate the impacts of using next-generation cookstoves in India.
  • University of Colorado, Boulder researchers will use small, inexpensive sensors to monitor indoor air pollution exposure in homes. They will also collect data through health assessments and outdoor air quality measurements in Ghana.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the grants at a reception hosted by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. EPA is a founding member of this public-private partnership, which seeks to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and protect the environment by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. Our collective goal: 100 million homes adopting clean cooking solutions by 2020. Achieving that will really be something to celebrate!

About the Author: Dr. James H. Johnson Jr. is the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, which runs the Agency’s STAR program as well as other grant, fellowship, and awards programs that support high quality research by many of our nation’s leading scientists and engineers.

 

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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EPA Science: Insight. Innovation. Impact.

2014 May 26

By Lek Kadeli

“Science has been the backbone of the most significant advances EPA has made in the past four decades and continues to be the engine that drives American prosperity and innovation in the future.”  — Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator

Late last month, Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a speech to the National Academy of Sciences about the central role that science plays in the work that we do here at EPA. In her speech, she noted how EPA research results have helped protect generations of American’s who now enjoy not only a cleaner, healthier environment, but a more prosperous future. “When we follow the science, we all win,” the Administrator said.

As the acting assistant administrator for the Agency’s Office of Research and Development, I have the privilege of watching that winning science unfold on a daily basis. I have a front row seat to the deliberative, time-honored scientific processes that yields results that have been carefully scrutinized, peer-reviewed, and more importantly, advances our understanding of some of the most critical challenges facing our nation.

Because our mandate is clear—to protect human health and the environment—our researchers must deliver results that support actions and policies that have true impact. Highlights of some of those achievements from last year are featured in our recently-released report, Insight. Innovation. Impact. 2013 Accomplishments, EPA Office of Research and Development.

The accomplishments presented in the report illustrate how insight, innovation, and impact are at the heart of our research.

annual-report-2013-lgTogether with agency program offices and regions as well as partnerships cultivated with stakeholders and throughout the scientific community, EPA research teams provide critical insight into current and emerging human health and environmental challenges. To that knowledge, they apply a collective spirit of innovation to provide timely, cost-effective tools, models, and other solutions. Finally, their research results are incorporated in ways that have true positive impact: improving human health, taking action on climate change, lowering exposure and risks to harmful pollutants, increasing national security, and advancing more resilient, sustainable and prosperous communities.

No other research organization in the world offers the overall diversity of expertise found in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. For more than four decades, this community of scientists and engineers has helped the Agency protect our environment, even as the economy has grown and the country has become stronger and more secure. I invite you to use our latest report for a transparent look at some of the latest achievements that continued commitment has yielded. Thanks to their efforts, we all win.  

Download the report. 

About the Author: Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. He has more than 29 years of management experience in both government and the private sector, with broad experience in leading organizational change and improvement, policy development, resource management, information management and technology.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Listening In On the Future

2014 May 23

By Andy Miller

EPA's Andy Miller with Patrick H. Hurd Award winner Miriam Demasi

EPA’s Andy Miller presents Miriam Demasi with the Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award.

The other day I overheard an amazing conversation between two teenage girls.  “That is so cool!  I have to tell my friend—she’ll freak out!” one of them gushed.  It sounds typical, but what amazed me was what they were talking about—using coal fly ash as a replacement for Portland cement.

Really. This was the kind of discussion one heard among thousands of teenagers at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, where I was lucky enough to be a judge for an EPA-sponsored award.

The conversation I overheard ended when one of the girls had to go back to her project to talk with other judges, but she rushed off saying, “We’ll be back when we’re done.  We really need to talk more.”  About fly ash, Portland cement, shear strength, Young’s modulus (a measure of material stiffness and elasticity), and admixing accelerants. These were the girls’ words, not mine.

One of the girls in this conversation was a high school freshman from West Virginia, Miriam Demasi.  She is this year’s winner of EPA’s Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award, which is given at the ISEF each year.

Miriam’s project was to create, from wastes, a building material that would be more resilient to earthquake damage than adobe.  She used fly ash and newspaper to create bricks that were lighter than adobe, and she showed, among other analyses, how the strength changed with the amount of newspaper.  Every question we posed to her was answered thoroughly and confidently.  It was clear she knew her stuff.

Miriam’s interests are not just in engineering.  A few years ago, she did a study to see if peoples’ ability to read mirror writing – writing as you would see it backwards, as in a mirror—depended upon whether they were predominantly left-brained or right-brained.  And she’s a soccer player.

Of course, Miriam was not the only one who really knew her science.  The bits of conversation I heard when walking along the posters rivaled those at a professional technical conference.  Here’s just a small sampling:

  • “The extraction method did well.”
  • “It doesn’t require much of an operations staff.”
  • “These use scaffolds of synthetic polymers.”
  • “We connect it in a linear fashion.”

It’s hard to remember these were teenagers, still—or even barely—in high school.  Selecting just one out of the more than 250 environmentally-related projects was not easy.  But it was one of those efforts that gives one tremendous hope for the future.

ISEF Award FestivitiesMiriam’s prize includes a trip to Washington, DC next spring to attend EPA’s National Sustainable Design Expo where she’ll display her winning project along with entries to the P3 (People, Prosperity, Planet) Student Design Competition for Sustainability, giving her the  chance to interact with college students with similar interests in sustainability.

I was fortunate enough to be able to congratulate Miriam personally at the awards ceremony.  I hope you all have the opportunity to meet one of the exceptional ISEF finalists and congratulate them on their achievements.  For those of us in EPA, if you happen to run into Miriam when she’s in Washington, congratulate her and, most definitely, be nice to her.  We’ll probably be working for her before too long.

About the Author: When not serving as an eavesdropping science fair judge, Andy Miller is the Associate Director for Climate in EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Scientists in that program conduct research to assess the impacts of a changing climate, and to develop the scientific information and tools the nations needs to act on climate change.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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