Science Wednesday: Wheels of Progress

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

By Aaron Ferster

Last week I shared a ride to Baltimore with EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Research and Development, Dr. Paul Anastas. My colleague Joanne and I wanted to catch Dr. Anastas’ keynote address at the 21st Meeting of the International Society of Exposure Science, so when he accepted her offer for a ride to the meeting, I was able to tag along.

According to the official biography on EPA’s web site, Dr. Anastas is: Known widely as the “Father of Green Chemistry” for his groundbreaking research on the design, manufacture, and use of minimally-toxic, environmentally-friendly chemicals.

He’s also my boss’ boss, so it occurred to me as we strolled toward Joanne’s car that the standard travel protocol—calling out “shotgun!” and leaping into the front seat—was not in order.

Luckily, Dr. Anastas graciously suggested I sit upfront so I could navigate while he fielded calls, monitored his e-mail traffic, and put the final touches on his speech. (Just for the record: I’m pretty sure I would have won the passenger seat.)

Along the way, we chatted. Amongst the talk of congressional hearings, exposure models, and Disney princesses (we all have kids or grandkids), Dr. Anastas made a point that stuck with me: it took years of travel before anyone thought to put wheels on luggage.

That stayed with me throughout his talk about innovation, and how EPA research is striving to advance science and engineering for a sustainable future. Dr. Anastas shared how commitments made over the past 40 years have led to cleaner and healthier air, land, and water.

When I got back to the office I did a quick Google and some simple math to conclude that astronauts landed on the moon some 18 years before a handle and two wheels became standard fare for a big suitcase.

I actually found that kind of comforting. While a bevy of EPA scientists and engineers work to bring the required innovative, high-tech solutions that will surely be needed to meet the environmental challenges of the day, they are also working to share EPA data and challenge everyone interested to join the race for solutions.

Programs such as the Apps for the Environment Challenge and the upcoming Apps for the Environment Forum aim to inspire the environmental equivalent of wheels on luggage. This could be your chance to join the race for environmental solutions. Whose got shotgun?

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the senior science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the editor of Science Wednesday, and an excellent navigator.

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