Science Wednesday: Mentoring with DC EnvironMentors

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Mike Messner

One thing I love about EPA is the passion my colleagues bring to the job.  We believe we make a difference to public health and environment.  We assess the costs and benefits of our rules and regulations, but none of us can assess the value of what we do on any particular hour or day.  Believe it or not, this is what was going through my head as I waited at Metro Center one Wednesday evening.

I was waiting impatiently for my EnvironMentors student, Yishaac, to arrive.  Yishaac and I were paired as part of the EnvironMentors program.  Since 1992, this program has connected thousands of minority high school students with DC-area scientists.   Mentors guide the students as they develop environmental science projects.  The program ends each spring, with students presenting their projects to elementary school classes and displaying their projects at the local EnvironMentors science fair.

Yishaac was late.  I felt bad about his “wasting” my time, but then started to think about the value of that time.  I figured that the value of my time with Yishaac depends on the kind of difference I make in his life.  In terms of probability, I believe there is:

  • a tiny probability of making no difference (value = 0),
  • a small probability of making a small difference (value about equal to my time invested), and
  • a fair probability of making a huge difference (great value).

EnvironMentors reports that 98 percent of participating students graduate from high school and 95 percent go on to college!  By comparison, average rates for the District of Columbia are only 43 percent and 12 percent, respectively.  Given that my time with Yishaac could easily have this kind of impact, I figure one hour of waiting could be more valuable than what I earn in one hour at EPA—perhaps lots more.

So, I settled down and let go of my impatience.  Yishaac arrived one hour late, but I wasn’t angry or upset.  He apologized and explained how he spent the entire hour getting to the station.  The important thing is that he made it and I hung in there.  Later that evening, we called Dr. Dan Costa, EPA’s National Program Director for clean air research to discuss air pollutants and lung function (Yishaac’s research area).

About the author:  Dr. Messner is a mathematical statistician with EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.  An EPA employee since 1998, he models microbial and chemical contaminants in drinking water and assesses the benefits of EPA’s drinking water regulations.

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