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.