What Does a Scientist Look Like?

by Lisa Donahue

Thirstin's water cycle

 Thirstin’s water cycle

Recently, I had the opportunity to be the introductory speaker for Girls in Science Day at a local public elementary school.  As the auditorium filled with a diverse group of girls and boys in kindergarten through fourth grades, I asked them to think, “What does a scientist look like? What does a scientist do?”  The young students shared their ideas: wears a white lab coat, works with chemicals, wears safety goggles, blows things up.  All good answers! I have no lab coat, but I have goggles, a hard hat, and safety shoes for field work.  I don’t, however, blow things up.

The goal of the students’ day was science exposure, so I talked about all the different disciplines I’ve studied and used in my job as an environmental scientist here in EPA’s mid-Atlantic drinking water enforcement program.  We talked about all of those “ologies” – biology, meteorology, toxicology, geology – and chemistry – and why you need to know about all of them to understand the water cycle and how contaminants move through the environment.

We also talked about where and how environmental scientists work: we work inside and outside; using computers and our scientific knowledge to ask questions and make good decisions about the environment. I even talked about the data we gather from public water systems to find out if they meet drinking water standards.

During my career as a scientist, I have spoken in classrooms countless times, and participated in events designed to foster girls’ interests in STEM topics.  The organizers always thank me for my time, emphasizing the importance of having a “real scientist” talk to the students.  Still, I always wonder: Will they remember anything about water pollution?  Will they absorb my enthusiasm for my work?

During this presentation, I was asked a question I wasn’t expecting: “At your work, who does the most important science, boys or girls?”  What a question!  For me, the answer was easy: I said that we all work together, because I work with so many men and women who do the important work of protecting human health and the environment.  I hope both the girls and boys remember that.


About the author:    Lisa Donahue is an environmental scientist in EPA’s regional office in Philadelphia, and has degrees in biology and environmental education.  In addition to her work in the Water Protection Division, she chairs EPA’s Federal Women’s Program National Council.  She’s proud to be one of the many men and women scientists in public service.


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