scientist at work

Women’s History Month: Honoring Achievements in Science

By Maggie Sauerhage

Ecologist Rachel Carson helped shape how people see the natural world.

An ecologist who changed how an entire country looks at the natural world. The first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only one to win the prize in two separate fields. A computer scientist whose research helped launch rockets into space. A pioneer who realized the dangers of air pollution during the Industrial Revolution. A champion in protecting endangered species. And the first African-American woman to receive a degree in bacteriology.

Who are they? Rachel Carson. Marie Curie. Annie Easley. Mary Walton. Jane Goodall. Ruth Ella Moore.

These are just a few of many inspiring women who have impacted all of us with their innovations in science, engineering, conservation, medicine, and human health protection. They have inspired generations of scientists, engineers, trailblazers, women, and men to find a place where they can make their own impact, no matter how small, in comparison to these great achievements.

March is Women’s History Month, and this year’s theme is Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination.

In honor of women, both past and present, who have changed all of our lives for the better through their work protecting human health and the environment, this month we are profiling EPA women scientists and engineers who are striving to make the planet a safer, cleaner, and more sustainable place to live. They share their research, how they discovered their passion for science or engineering, and give advice for anyone who is interested in pursuing their dreams.

We’ll add more profiles throughout the month, so please check back as the next four weeks roll on and maybe you, too, will find a passion for environmental and human health research!

About the Author: Maggie Sauerhage is part of the communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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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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Scientist at Work: Mehdi S. Hazari, Ph.D.

EPA scientist Mehdi S. Hazari is a recipient of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Dr. Mehdi’s award recognizes his work demonstrating how breathing in low levels of air pollutants, such as particulate matter and ground level ozone, can increase people’s susceptibility to heart attacks and other cardiac events. His research is also receiving international recognition and is under consideration for inclusion in the update of worldwide standards. Read more about his research in the previous blog post, “You Don’t Need Oz to Give You a Healthy Heart.”

What do you like most about your research?

The opportunity to try something new in the laboratory, but more broadly, the direct impact it can potentially have on protecting human health and the environment.

How does your science matter?

Despite the fact that we are learning quite a bit about how air pollution is directly detrimental to the body, particularly when adverse symptoms are observed, we still need to better identify the latent (hidden) effects of exposure. This is especially true of low concentration exposures to air pollution during which no direct responses may be observed.

My work demonstrates that even in the absence of obvious “symptoms,” air pollution might have the potential to cause subtle internal body changes that increase the risk of triggering something bad happening to your heart, such as an arrhythmia. We all know that exercise is generally a good thing, but its hard physical activity that does create mild to moderate stress on the body. Add high air pollution levels into the mix on a hot day, and instead of getting healthier, that stress might be the trigger for an adverse response. Doing that same activity in a healthy air environment might not. And in the case of stress, it doesn’t have to be just air pollution. The triggers might be any stressful stimuli.

Again, I think my science matters because of the direct impact it can potentially have on protecting human health and the environment.

If you could have dinner with any scientist past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

William Harvey—the English physician and physiologist who completely described the cardiovascular system.

Continue reading Dr. Hazari’s interview here.

Read more Scientist at Work profiles here.

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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Scientist at Work: Robert Devlin, Ph.D.

February is American Heart Month! To help spread the word about heart health, EPA scientists and staff will write each week about the Agency’s Green Heart effort to educate the public about of the connection between air pollution and your heart. Be sure to check back each week to learn more, and for tips on what you can can do stay healthy!

Meet EPA Scientist Robert Devlin, Ph.D.

EPA scientist Dr. Robert Devlin’s main research interest is understanding the human health effects of air pollution. His research is used to characterize the effects that inhaled substances, such as air pollutants, have on human pulmonary (related to lungs and breathing) and cardiovascular (heart, lungs, and blood flow) health, and the physiological changes responsible for those effects.

When he retires Dr. Devlin hopes to become a star on the senior PGA golf tour as well as a movie reviewer for Entertainment Weekly.

How does your science matter?

I know my research matters because the results help set standards that protect people from real world exposures to air pollutants. As an example, we did a study Exit EPA Disclaimer a few years ago examining the lowest level of ozone that people could be safely exposed to and still be safe. Being able to conduct a study that ensures that our standards protect the public is important, and it makes you feel like your work means something.

We’re also interested in figuring out what we can tell people so they can protect themselves from air pollutants if they find themselves in a place with higher air pollution levels than EPA believes is safe (Editor’s note: for more information, also see EPA’s Green Heart web page: http://www.epa.gov/greenheart/). We just completed a study Exit EPA Disclaimer, in which we found a positive relationship between taking fish oil tablets and protecting yourself against some of the effects of air pollution on the cardiovascular system.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Texas and got my doctorate from the University of Virginia Exit EPA Disclaimer in the area of developmental biology. My graduate research involved looking at genes that control the development of muscles in bird embryos using molecular biology approaches. I was on the faculty for Emory University Exit EPA Disclaimer for several years doing that research right after receiving my doctorate.

Keep reading Dr. Devlin’s interview here.

Read more Scientist at Work interviews here.

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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Scientist at Work: Dermont Bouchard, Ph.D.

EPA Scientist Dermont Bouchard, Ph.D., is working to better understand how tiny nanomaterials might be released into the environment. What he and his research partners are learning helps regulators and other decision-makers lower risks and better protect human health and the environment.

How does your science matter?

My research focuses on the fate of nanomaterials in the environment—tiny materials measured on the “nanoscale” that are about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The field of nanomaterials, which is relatively new, uses the unique properties of nanoscale materials to develop new products and technologies, including many used in our homes.

My colleagues and I are developing techniques to measure and model the fundamental processes that determine where these nanomaterials end up in the environment.

One of our roles as scientists is to supply some of the basic information about nanomaterials: their properties, persistence in the environment, and the state of these materials, so that regulators can make informed decisions to protect human health and the environment. We are working to identify which materials would be most likely to be released into the environment so we can focus on them for additional study.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would you choose and what would you like to ask them?

Carel J. van Oss, a Dutch scientist who has made a lot of significant contributions to colloid science Exit EPA Disclaimer. Colloid science is really the foundation for a lot of the nanomaterials work that is done right now.

On top of being such an accomplished scientist, he was also a talented forger. While he was in the Netherlands at the start of WWII, he forged documents that assisted hundred of Jews in escaping Nazi occupation. I would like to ask him how he dealt with the occupation and how he got to where he is today.

Keep reading Dr. Bouchard’s interview here.

Read more Scientist at Work profiles here.

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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Scientist at Work: Eric Villegas, Ph.D.

Eric Villegas, Ph.D. is a research microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. His recent work focuses on next generation sequencing technology to better understand risks associated with waterborne parasites.

Dr. Villegas is on the Editorial Board for The Scientific World Journal Exit EPA Disclaimer. He is a member of the American Society of Parasitologists, the American Society for Microbiology and the American Water Works Association.

How does your science matter?

My research primarily focuses on parasites in water. We’re working to determine the levels of these parasites as they relate to human exposure risks. In order to provide that data, we have to develop tools that enable us to detect the parasites. The tools we have developed now allow us to better assess the risks associated to these pathogens and provide insights on how to mitigate these issues.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

My choice would be the two “Steves” who started Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. I’d like to ask them what were their inspirations and driving forces behind their development of the Apple computer. Do they have any words of wisdom for the next generation scientists and engineers?

Click here to keep reading Dr. Villegas’s Scientist at Work profile.

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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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Scientist at Work: Mark Strynar, Ph.D.

Dr. Mark Strynar is a Physical Scientist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. His research interests include developing methods to measure and analyze the movement and fate of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and other xenobiotic compounds (chemicals found in organisms that are not normally expected to be present) in biological and environmental media.

When not at work, he enjoys spending time with his family and volunteering at his local church and various community programs. He is also an avid hunter, woodworker and welder who spends countless hours in his workshop creating furniture, contraptions, sawdust, and metal filings.

How does your science matter?

For the past eight years or so, I’ve focused on perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). PFCs are chemical compounds used to make products resistant to stains, water, or heat. Most people would recognize them as the compounds that keep food from sticking to pans or stains from ruining carpet.

Unfortunately, the same properties that make PFCs useful in kitchenware and fabric also make them highly resistant to degradation, which means they stay in our environment for a long time after we are done using them. We have found that PFCs are also widely dispersed in human beings.

My job is trying to figure out the different ways that PFCs get into your body. Each avenue of exposure: water, fish, air, food, house dust, etc., requires a different way (“analytical method”) for us to measure for PFCs and other chemicals of interest.

My research supports human risk assessment studies. It matters because if PFC exposure levels are too high we can help people take action. For example, in Decatur, Alabama, we found that levels of PFCs were too high in water and we were able to put people on alternate sources of drinking water. I can see an immediate impact from the work I’m doing to protect people’s health.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

I would say Louis Pasteur Exit EPA Disclaimer, who was one of the first to do a lot of microbial work and discover that the root causes of many diseases are biologically based in microrganisms. I would like to ask him what made him begin to suspect that microbes are the root cause of diseases.

To keep reading Mark’s interview, click here.

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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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Scientists at Work: Paul Mayer, Ph.D.

Dr Paul MayerEPA ecologist Paul Mayer, Ph.D. works in EPA’s Groundwater and Ecosystem Restoration division where he studies riparian zones (the area along rivers and streams where the habitats are influenced by both the land and water) and stream restoration. Dr. Mayer has also worked as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

How does your science matter?

My research examines ecosystem restoration projects—looking at how such efforts also restore various kinds of “ecosystem functions,” such as absorbing nutrients and preventing erosion. More specifically, my colleagues and I have been looking at stream restoration in urban and agricultural ecosystems. Stream restoration uses various approaches to reconstruct or redesign streams that have been heavily impacted by urbanization, agricultural practices, or past land use.

With stream restoration, we’re looking at nutrient uptake (2 pp, 276K), especially nitrogen. Excess nitrogen is one of the ecological stressors that EPA is most interested in because it can cause human health and ecological problems. High levels of nitrate nitrogen in drinking water prevent your body from taking in oxygen efficiently. My work is helping us learn how to “supercharge ecosystems” and enhance their ability to process excess nitrogen.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was five years-old. My earliest memory is standing in the front yard of my house with my mom and being fascinated by all the birds flying around us. I asked her what kind of birds they were. I knew then, even though I didn’t yet know what a scientist was, that I wanted to know more about the world around me.

Keep reading the interview with Dr. Paul Mayer by clicking here.

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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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Scientist at Work: Dr. Swinburne A.J. Augustine


Dr. Swinburne A. J. Augustine (Jason), Ph.D. is an EPA Research Microbiologist/Immunologist. His research is aimed at developing and applying rapid, cost-effective and multiplexed immunoassays to determine and/or measure human exposures to environmental pathogens using antibodies in human saliva as biomarkers of exposure. He is a member of the American Association of Immunologists and the American Society for Microbiology. Dr. Augustine also served in the U.S. Army.

How does your science matter?

Every day, we are exposed to a myriad of harmful environmental (airborne, food-borne, and waterborne) organisms. Sometimes they make us sick but more often than not, our immune system protects us from these pathogens. My research uses antibodies in human saliva to measure levels of exposure to environmental pathogens. Epidemiologists use this data to determine if the levels of exposure are high enough to be harmful to humans. This information helps inform Agency decisions on what measures should be taken to protect human health. My research partners and I are analyzing multiple pathogens simultaneously, which saves EPA time and money.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

I’d like to have dinner with Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek. I’d ask him what inspired him to invent the microscope and what is the secret to its construction?

What do you like most about your research?

I really enjoy the collaboration with a range of scientists including epidemiologists, virologists, microbiologists, immunologists and engineers. We work together to tackle tough water quality, sustainability and exposure questions in order to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.

To keep reading about Dr. Augustine, click here.

For more Scientists at Work profiles, click here.

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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Scientist at Work: Bill Shuster

EPA Scientist Bill ShusterAs a research hydrologist, EPA’s Dr. Bill Shuster conducts interdisciplinary studies that integrate elements of hydrology, soil science, ecology, economics, and law to develop stormwater and wastewater management techniques.

His current work involves the design and testing of “green infrastructure” approaches to urban stormwater management, exploring residential and neighborhood-based technologies such as rain gardens and rain barrels, and how they may impart sustainability through social equity, economic stabilization, and environmental quality.

How does your science matter?

We have a tremendous problem with wastewater management in this country. During wet-weather events, our older combined sewer systems tend to overflow, sending polluted septic flows into our nation’s rivers and streams.

My work matters because it is seeking solutions to that problem by helping us better understand what role green infrastructure—rain gardens, rain barrels, cisterns, urban soils in vacant lots, etc.—can play by absorbing and holding stormwater, reducing polluted runoff, and reduce sewer system overflows.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?

I would have dinner with Linus Pauling Exit EPA Disclaimer or E.O. Wilson Exit EPA Disclaimer – I can’t decide. I would love to get some insight into how they take their ideas and frame them into research questions, as well as how they would each approach a research problem. I use the word “consilience” Exit EPA Disclaimer with some frequency, and so I tip my hat to E.O. Wilson, and his great book by the same name.

Click here to keep reading Bill’s profile.

For more Scientist at Work profiles, go to www.epa.gov/research/scientistsatwork.

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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To All Veterans: Thank you for your service!

Before working to protect human health and the environment, EPA scientists Swinburne A. J. (Jason) Augustine, Ph.D. and Heriberto Cabezas, Ph.D. worked to protect our country while serving in the U.S. Military. Both scientists recently shared some thoughts about their work for our “EPA Researchers@Work” website, and we are highlighting those interviews on Veterans Day, 2012 as part of our efforts to thank Veterans everywhere for their service.

Dr. Jason Augustine at Work Scientist at Work: Interview with A.J. (Jason) Augustine, Ph.D.

Dr. Swinburne A. J. Augustine (Jason), Ph.D. is an EPA Research Microbiologist/Immunologist. His research is aimed at developing and applying rapid, cost-effective and multiplexed immunoassays to determine and/or measure human exposures to environmental pathogens using antibodies in human saliva as biomarkers of exposure. He is a member of the American Association of Immunologists and the American Society for Microbiology. Dr. Augustine also served in the U.S. Army.

How does your science matter?

Every day, we are exposed to a myriad of harmful environmental (airborne, food-borne, and waterborne) organisms. Sometimes they make us sick but more often than not, our immune system protects us from these pathogens. My research uses antibodies in human saliva to measure levels of exposure to environmental pathogens. Epidemiologists use this data to determine if the levels of exposure are high enough to be harmful to humans. This information helps inform Agency decisions on what measures should be taken to protect human health. My research partners and I are analyzing multiple pathogens simultaneously, which saves EPA time and money.

Click here to read the whole interview.

EPA's Dr. CabezasScientist at Work: Interview with Dr. Heriberto Cabezas, Ph.D.

Dr. Heriberto Cabezas, Ph.D. is currently the Senior Science Advisor to the Sustainable Technology Division in EPA’s National Risk Management Research Lab, where he works to advance the scientific understanding, development, and application of science and technologies to address a variety of areas related to sustainability. He was formerly an Acting Director of the Division, and Chief of the Sustainable Environments Branch.

How does your science matter?

My work focuses on preventing environmental problems from happening in the first place. I mostly work on designing processes that have the smallest environmental footprint.

More recently, I have been working on sustainability. We have to ask ourselves, “How can we successfully manage the environment so that we avoid environmental problems in the long term?” The kinds of things that my coworkers and I do matter because it’s the best way to protect the environment and human health: being proactive. We’re not trying to fix a problem after it has already occurred, but trying to see if we can prevent the problems from occurring in the first place. I think that is important.

Click here to read the whole interview.

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

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.