Women in Science: Learning the Science to Protect the Planet

By Mary Wigginton

Right now, Cynthia Nolt-Helms is up to her blue eyes in the never ending roll of logistic details needed to run EPA’s annual P3 Award, a college competition for sustainability.

With her team, Cynthia produces EPA’s Earth Day event on the National Mall in Washington, DC. But tents, tables and talking points are not the usual stuff of scientific pursuits, so you have to wonder. What is a nice, environmental toxicologist doing in a job like this?

Cynthia doesn’t remember a particular moment in her life when she decided to be a scientist. Her dad was a scientist and she was good at it growing up. But she does remember wanting to protect the planet at an early age.

“Since I grew up in Oregon and collected beer bottles for a two-cent refund when very few states offered bottle refunds, I can remember being very proud of my state’s environmental ethic. Growing up in Oregon, I developed a real appreciation for the environment and that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. Science seemed like a good way to work for the environment.”

With a double major in chemistry and biology from Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, Cynthia won a scholarship to Cornell University to study environmental toxicology and public policy. For her graduate thesis she studied the movement of toxic chemicals in plants and their effect on plant growth at EPA’s lab in Corvallis, Oregon. But the local lab experience followed by a two-year stint working on public policy for a church organization started Cynthia to thinking that what she really wanted her life’s work to be about was protecting the environment on the national scale.

Cynthia applied to, and was hired for, a job in EPA’s Office of Water in Washington, DC. From that first job, and through most of her EPA career, Cynthia focused on water issues.

“I have a scientific background but I’m more attracted to the policy implications and how one works with science,” she said.
Years later when the opportunity came up to manage EPA’s P3 Program, Cynthia went for it. She recognized the program’s value for promoting innovation and collaboration to solve problems in the real world.

And that is how she has come to this day, coordinating all the details for a successful competition and life-changing experience for the students who want to protect the planet today, much like she did years ago as a little girl in Oregon.

If you are in town April 15 – 17, join Cynthia and more than 350 college students on the National Mall and you will be amazed by the students’ energy and creativity of their projects.

About the author: Mary Wigginton is a science writer and communications director for EPA’s P3 Program.

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