chemistry

Career Advice from Mary Pat

marypat

At school, we are constantly given assignments to work in groups.  Often it is not the subject matter that makes the projects hard, but it is the coordinating of all the group members.  I wanted to get the perspective of an EPA employee who is tasked with coordinating a variety of people, so I sat down with Mary Pat Tyson. 

 

What is your position at the EPA?

I am the Branch Chief of the Air Toxics and Assessment Branch.  I manage three different sections: Toxics and Global Atmosphere, Indoor and Voluntary Programs, and Air Monitoring and Analysis Sections.  

Do you have prior work experiences that led you to the EPA?

During college I worked in a laboratory analyzing water samples for a drinking water project.  During that time I became aware of the EPA and different programs.  I started at the EPA in the Superfund Division working on hazardous waste site cleanup.  I moved on to a Branch Chief position in the Water Division where I worked on planning and grants along with the tribal programs.

What is a typical day like for you?

On a typical day I come in, check my email, and then meetings start.  Around 8, I have people in and out of my office for the rest of the day.  I have meetings with my boss, the section chiefs, and different state agencies.  I am also the President of the Federal Managers Association for EPA and work on issues that are of interest to federal managers.

What is the best part of your job?

Getting work done!  Getting to know the people and the work that excites them.  I love hearing about their work and helping out where I can.  In my role, I get to help people achieve their highest potential.  I enjoy communicating with section chiefs to make sure we have a strong team. 

Did you always have an interest in the environment?

I grew up in the city.  I enjoyed playing at parks, but never really was a nature person.  In high school a teacher suggested I study engineering because I was good at math and science.  This eventually led to me focusing in on studying environmental engineering.

What classes did you take in school that you use on the job today?

I took some practical classes about project management with teams.  Those have been very useful on the job.  In addition, math, science, and chemistry classes are always important.

Do you have any advice for kids today who have an interest in protecting our environment?

There are so many clubs and organizations to get involved with and learn about the environment.  Every neighborhood has opportunities to do your part.  In addition, the web is an info explosion!  You can learn how to start a compost pile in your backyard from a website.  It is important to stay close to the earth.  Take science and math classes.  The opportunities are endless!

 

Kelly Siegel is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for sustainable development, running, and traveling with friends.

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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Career Advice from Greg

Greg

In high school I always enjoyed the science classes where we got to work in the lab and do experiments.  In college, I further explored this interest in college and worked in a horticulture lab, testing horseradish tissue cultures.  Because of these interests I wanted to visit the EPA Lab.  I was lucky enough to meet with Greg Mitsakopoulos and get a tour of the Chicago Regional Laboratory. 

 What is your position at the EPA?

I’m a trace metals chemist at the Chicago Regional Laboratory (CRL).  Besides sample analysis, I provide technical direction and evaluation of the work products produced by the Region 5 contractor analyzing samples from Superfund sites.  I am also “Group Leader” for two other chemists performing trace metals analysis at CRL.

 Do you have prior work experiences that lead you to the EPA?

While a student, I participated in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s cooperative education program which led me to a Quality Assurance laboratory position at a Fortune 500 company.  There I gained experience in instrumental analysis which I believe factored into why I was selected.

What is a typical day like for you?

Many days I analyze water, soil and waste samples and produce reports on low-level metals content from a variety of EPA programs, using state of the art instrumentation.  We often measure to the part per billion (ppb) or part per million (ppm) level.  Measurements to these small amounts are needed to protect human health and the environment.  One ppb is approximately one drop of water in an Olympic-size pool!  There are ten thousand ppm in one percent.  The data I produce is used to evaluate site cleanup, to evaluate compliance with permits, to study lakes and rivers, to support enforcement, and even to support criminal investigations.  Besides analysis, other interesting projects come up.  Recently, I was on a panel to evaluate proposals from companies wishing to be on the next Superfund contract.  The Superfund contract is a very competitive, highly selective multimillion dollar contract.

What is the best part of your job?

Being able to help others at the level of the individual or of society, whether it’s producing data that will be used to protect the health of Americans, or helping others in the laboratory get the most out of our laboratory information management system.  A good part of job satisfaction comes from the people I work with everyday.

Did you always have an interest in the environment?

A book I read in childhood about “the future” painted some predictions about acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and air pollution.  These struck a chord within me.  So I was aware and concerned about of some of the world’s environmental ills early on.

What classes did you take in school that you use on the job today?

I would say they all helped to some extent, as good “brain training”.  Math is a must- not for the sake of math- without it one would be lost in the laboratory.  Chemistry has had the most direct bearing, and has provided me with concepts and practice central to my work.  Along with chemistry, physics is useful in understanding how scientific instrumentation works.  English class- it’s good to be able to express yourself clearly in writing.

Do you have any advice for kids today who have an interest in protecting our environment?

If you’re interested in protecting our environment, take classes in chemistry, math and physics.  These will arm you with basic concepts to understand present and emerging environmental concerns such as global warming and the mining of natural gas by hydrofracking.  Although the future may seem far-off now, it comes quickly and you are the future, so take care to begin shaping the world, or prepare your ability to shape it one day.  Your world will be well-served when you and its citizens are able to understand our effects on it.

Kelly Siegel is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for sustainable development, running, and traveling with friends.

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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Career advice from Nefertiti

By: Kelly Siegel

In classes we are always hearing about Superfund sites, but we never touch on them with too much detail.  Lucky for me, I am interning at the EPA so I decided to sit down with, Nefertiti DiCosmo, to learn more about what goes on in the Superfund Division. 

What is your position at the EPA?

I am a remedial project manager in the Superfund Division.  We investigate and clean up hazardous waste sites in EPA Region 5. 

What is a typical day like for you?

The great thing about this job is that you are never bored – you get to learn about new things all the time, so every day is different.  My job is to move Superfund sites through the remedial process.  This requires coordination and constant communication.   Since there are many interested parties when it comes to cleanup work, I am communicating with most of them on a weekly basis.  In addition, I review technical work and reports and give comments.  I sometimes go out to the site to oversee sampling or cleanup activities.  I do a lot of writing and planning.  Some of the documents I write are decision documents, five-year reviews, clean up and sampling schedules and reports, work assignments for contractors, etc. 

What is the best part of your job?

Getting things done!  I feel a sense of accomplishment when I have completed an investigation at a site or when I have written a decision document to clean it up.  I feel progress has been made and I can go to the community and show them what the EPA has done and plans to do.  It is a good feeling that motivates me to continue working on other cleanups.

Did you always have an interest in the environment?

I always knew it was important to protect the environment.  However, I was more interested in how human health was impacted by the environment.  We depend so much on our natural resources but, as a human race, we mistreat those resources and then are surprised when our health is negatively impacted.  I like to look at the relationships people have with the environment.

What classes did you take in school that you use on the job today?

Biology and chemistry classes, of course.  But, I often use my philosophy and humanities social sciences course.  One of the keys to getting things done is getting along with people who work on the project.  In addition, I am very proactive on taking advantage of training programs and classes available at EPA.  School is always important, regardless of the subject matter.  It is important to learn how to learn!

Do you have any advice for kids today who have an interest in protecting our environment?

Be the change!  Lead by example!  It is more effective to focus on how you embody the change you wish to see, than for you to tell a million people how important it is that they do the same thing.  If you want to protect the environment, do some research about what the issues are, choose a change you could make, and then practice that behavior as often as you can.  Then, when you are ready, choose another one!

Kelly Siegel is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for sustainable development, running, and traveling with friends.

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.

Good Beer? It’s in the Water

By Christina Catanese

If you’re a beer drinker, when you crack open a cold bottle or sip a freshly poured draft beer, the first thing you think about probably isn’t the quality of the water that was used to create your brew.  You probably notice the color, the aroma, the head, the flavor, the hops, the malt…but what of the water?

Photo Courtesy of the CDC

Photo Courtesy of the CDC

When I was in grad school, I worked at a microbrewery for some extra cash, and it changed what I thought I knew about beer.  I became familiar with the process of making beer: from malting, to mashing, to lautering, to boiling, to fermenting, to conditioning, and to filtering.  At each point in the process, water plays a key role, and it can make up over 95% of the finished product poured into your pint.

I had a lot of discussions with our brewer about how much the source water quality affects the brewing process and product.  There’s the obvious impact of the flavor of the water used in the brewing process, but the chemistry of the water can alter the process itself.

He described how yeast convert sugars into alcohol to ferment the beer, and how changes in water chemistry impact the activity of the yeast.  The chlorine that is added to most municipal drinking water to eliminate harmful bacteria can impact the flavor and aroma of beer, but the presence of bacteria can spoil a batch of beer.

I learned that the pH of the water also affects the sugar composition, which in turn affects how strong the beer will be.  Like hoppy beers?  Harder water brings out the hops’ flavor.  Softer water can result in milder flavored beers, so some brewers add water hardeners during the brewing process to amp up the hops and flavor.

Something as simple as a change in the treatment process at the local drinking water plant can have an impact.  So, too, can a new upstream pollution source or change in the health of the source water body.

You might wonder why breweries don’t just purify their water to start with some H2O that is as neutral as possible to start with.  But the thing is, what’s in the water is what makes the process work, and what makes gives each beer a unique regional character.  Overly purifying water through filtering or other methods takes everything out of the water, even the things a brewer wants to be there.

The brewery I worked at also strived to be a sustainable operation – the spent grains from the brewing process were picked up by a farmer to be used for livestock feed.  A few times, our brewer even asked me if he could borrow my hydrology and soils text books so he could have a better knowledge of how the health of the environment would affect the beer he made.

Throughout the history of beer making, brewers have been careful to site their breweries in the places with the highest quality water, and the health of a brewery’s home watershed is of prime importance to their brewers.

To recognize the connection of good beer with good water, the Schuylkill Action Network has partnered with brewers in the watershed to develop a special brew that pays tribute to its source water.

 

 

Have you ever thought about how water quality affects your happy hour?  What other unexpected ways does water impact our lives?

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

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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Education Outreach: Fun for All!

By Maureen Gwinn, Ph.D., DABT

Since 2007, the Girl Scouts Council Nation’s Capital Chapter has organized a Girl Scout Science Day to give local Girl Scouts an opportunity to learn more about science in a fun and friendly environment. 

I first became involved as a friend of the troop leader in charge of the event.  She and I would work on ideas, adapt experimental protocols and talk our science friends into volunteering at the event. 

EPA's Maureen Gwinn: "I enjoy every opportunity I have to encourage kids to have fun with science."

From the beginning, experiments have been led by Cadette or Senior Girl Scouts with the assistance of volunteers, including troop ‘moms’ and ‘dads’ and area scientists. We have hands-on experiments that address concepts of chemistry, microbiology, genetics, and toxicology.  We have had discussions related to what goes into your personal hygiene products, why DNA is unique to each of us, and how forensic science can help to solve a crime.

The Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts running the experiments at a recent event were the 4th graders who participated five years ago.  It has been a pleasure to see these girls not only learn the scientific concepts well enough to teach them to the new Brownie and Junior Girl Scouts, but to watch them take on more responsibility for the event itself.  Through my involvement in this event, I have been privileged to watch those young, giggly ten-year-old girls turn into responsible young ladies – that still giggle, but do so while teaching or setting up for the next group of girls. 

This event inspired me to volunteer in education outreach at other events, including the Society of Toxicology Annual meeting, EPA’s Earth Day celebrations, and the USA Science & Engineering Festival

Volunteering in education outreach was not something I had considered in the past, but after participating in the Girl Scout Science Day for the past five years, I enjoy every opportunity I have to encourage kids to have fun with science, to ask questions about how things work, and to work together to solve scientific problems. 

The Society of Toxicology Education Committee has ways to help support these types of opportunities, and for K-12 in particular we are putting together a website of ideas, experiments, and how-to’s to get you started in the new year. 

Are you interested in getting involved in education outreach, but don’t know where to start? Or are you already involved and have some tips or favorite resources to share? Please post your questions or suggestions in the comments section below so we can join forces.

The impact these events have on the kids is worth the effort. 

About the Author:  Maureen Gwinn is a biologist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment and works as an Associate National Program Director for Sustainable and Healthy Communities.  She is currently serving in her final year as the K-12 Subcommittee Chair for the Society of Toxicology and is always looking for ideas for scientific outreach.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Women in Science: Ann Richard

By Marguerite Huber

I have always envisioned myself working at EPA—out saving the planet. As a current intern, getting to interview those who actually do is particularly exciting to me.

Enter Ann Richard, an EPA computational chemist.

To get where she is today, Ann followed her talents in math and science to a PhD in physical chemistry. Before her post doc and EPA, she had stints working at an airport, and even an amusement park. But now, “I appreciate working for an agency that has the component of benefiting the public,” stated Ann while speaking of the EPA. She has been working here since 1987 (which is hard for me to imagine since that is longer than I have even been alive).

Today, Ann works in an area termed “chem-informatics,” a cross between chemistry and computer science that focuses the construction and use of chemical databases to address problems crossing the disciplines of chemistry, biology, and toxicology. Her greatest achievement has been the Distributed Structure-Searchable Toxicity (DSSTox) Public Database Network, sharing important information about chemicals with the public. It has been used by government, academia, and scientists worldwide. Furthermore, Ann manages the chemical informatics component of the ToxCast and Tox21 projects, which provide a foundation for improved toxico-chemoinformatics and structure-activity relationship capabilities in predictive toxicology.

In her career, Ann devotes a large effort to communicating across different disciplines. “You have to put yourself in the audience’s place and it is not easy, you have to work at it,” she said. In the end she finds it rewarding and worthwhile to try to bridge disciplines, even if she has to spend half a day on creating one perfect PowerPoint slide.

Her favorite part of her job is meeting amazing people from different countries. Ann has the opportunity to become acquainted with many talented people within her field worldwide. She derives a lot of satisfaction from knowing she has reached the point where she has gained the respect of her peers in her field.

Ann’s inspiration comes from ordinary people who do extraordinary things. While growing up, she never remembered being discouraged about being in the science field. If she was, it only made her more determined to succeed. “Don’t be intimidated,” are her wise words towards girls everywhere. In that case, I am going to pretend that toxico-chemoinformatics does not sound so intimidating!

About the author: Marguerite Huber is an intern from Indiana University currently working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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.

Science Wednesday: Nano Goes for the Green

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays. While Kermit the Frog’s famously laments that it is not easy being green, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have no choice but to develop innovative and creative ways to minimize our impact on the environment. For the past 35 years or so, I’ve been involved in searching for ways that science—chemistry in particular—can help.

Chemistry has become so important to modern life that it’s virtually at the center of everything we make. That’s why the development of “green chemistry” is so important. The 12 principles of green chemistry have been laid out very clearly, focusing on reducing, recycling, or eliminating the use of toxic materials in chemical synthesis or manipulations.

The first wave of green chemistry research focused primarily on replacing the use of toxic, volatile organic solvents by using microwaves, ultrasound, and photochemistry. Now, I’m excited to be involved in the next generation of green chemistry research, exploring the use of nanomaterials (particles 100 nanometers or smaller—a nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair).

One big question we asked ourselves was “why not use a single compound that nature uses to build nanomaterials from a single, environmentally-benign source?” Turns out it was a good question. We discovered that we can use almost anything to reduce metal salts, including vitamins (B1, B2, and C), tea and wine polyphenols, and natural surfactants, to their nano forms. This newer thinking provides a simple, one-pot, greener synthetic alternative to bulk quantities of nanomaterials, as compared to conventional methods that use toxic reagents.

We also discovered that we could easily synthesize noble, uniform-size nanostructures using microwave (MW) heating (yes, the same used in the kitchen). Using this technology, we’ve developed extremely strong and light materials by cross-linking polymer matrices into carbon nanotubes.

What’s next? How about making biodegradable cellulose composite films with nanometals? We figured out how to do that heating the salts with carboxymethylcellulose (CMC), essentially the same compound found in the diet supplement Metamucil, facilitates the alignment of carbon nanotubes.

image of authorGreen chemistry means green jobs, too. We are already working with VeruTEK, a Connecticut-based company this is using patented nanotechnology for green environmental remediation (clean up) by using zerovalent iron, also known as ‘iron nanoparticles’. They have created lots of Green jobs while targeting pollutants in soil and water.

About the author: Dr. Rajender (Raj) S. Varma was recently awarded the Visionary of the Year Award at the Green Technologies fo rthe Environment Conference held in Bloomfield, Ct. Varma is a research chemist with EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory.

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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