Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
Current Position: Physical Scientist/Project Officer at EPA
What degree(s) did you obtain at UIC in SPH?
I obtained the Master of Science (MS) in Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences this past August (2015).
What job did you obtain following graduation?
I work at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Great Lakes National Program Office, which is the only office that is headquartered in downtown Chicago. As for my title, I am Physical Scientist, but one of my main roles is to act as a Project Officer.
What are you doing day-to-day?
There are three new people (two Project Managers and one Project Officer) in my department, and we work a lot as a group. I deal with financials and contracts a lot, but the scientific part comes in when we evaluate work plans to evaluate, monitor, or remediate areas with contaminated sediments in the Great Lakes watershed. I help evaluate the project overall, including determining what is necessary for the project, and what needs to be done to meet the goals. The environmental chemistry and water quality courses I took definitely help me understand the problems we deal with and help identify solutions for those problems.
What excites you most about this job?
It has all these clear goals and measures of accountability so we can really see we are making an actual difference. Unlike other programs at the EPA, state and industry collaborate with us on an entirely volunteer basis and as a result of our ability to bring in stakeholders and efficiently remediate areas previously devastated by pollution, the program has received wide bipartisan support from Congress. The EPA has a goal to clean up outliers in the “Great Lakes Areas of Concern” by 2020, and because of the hard work of existing team members, two areas have already been delisted.
How do you feel that the SPH graduate program at UIC prepared you for this job?
As I said earlier, my job relates to many of the classes I took in EOHS. Specifically, Environmental Chemistry with Dr. An Li, Environmental Calculations with Dr. Rachael Jones, and Environmental and Occupational Toxicology with Dr. Sam Dorevitch have proven to be especially helpful. My opportunity to serve as a Research Assistant with Dr. Dorevitch performing water sampling on Chicago beaches was very helpful in understanding the reality of the Great Lakes environmental health.
What attracted you to UIC's program, as opposed to other schools?
I was living in Chicago and working at a non-profit organization dealing with lead poisoning, asthma, and healthy housing. I discovered that many of the people I had met and admired at conferences were faculty in EOHS and, just how involved the program was in the community. There are a lot of projects happening on the ground and it was cool to see that UIC is more connected to the city at large as compared to other schools that are very insular and doing their own thing. I’m also very passionate about eliminating health disparities and at UIC, I was able to pursue that research interest as well as my interest in water quality.
What was your favorite aspect of the program?
There were so many opportunities, more than I could even take in. It is hard to nail down a favorite, but seeing the great projects EOHS professors were working on and could get involved in was really interesting. I’m interested in a lot of things that encompass public health, and I felt that almost any of them that I wanted to pursue, there was someone there to be a mentor for that.
Can you think of a particularly memorable aspect of your experience?
As a research assistant, I got to work closely with a number of different professors that I admired was pretty cool. I did an entire project with Susan Buchanan studying mercury exposure in the Chicago area Asian population via fish consumption, so working on that from beginning to end was very empowering.
Were there staff/faculty members who made a notable impact on you?
I worked with Sal Cali and David Jacobs a lot during my Masters program, and I had actually worked with them previous to my enrollment so it was nice to have them as guides through the entire program. Dr. Forst and Dr. Jones were so helpful in helping me complete my master’s thesis as well.
What advice would you give to an incoming graduate student at UIC? Is there something you wish you had known when you started out?
Networking is definitely important, go out and do informational interviews to determine where other people’s interests fit into the jobs they ended up taking and how they manage their work/life balance. It was so valuable to take advantage of the SPH Career Research Center. I wish had begun working with them earlier, because they worked one on one with me to be strategic with where I wanted to apply for jobs, determining how I wanted to put myself forward to not only get a job, but to get a job I liked waking up for.
What was the most challenging aspect of graduate school for you, and how did you overcome that challenge?
The most challenging thing was finishing the thesis, because when I had issues I did not want to reach out for help, so I kept putting it off when I had problems. People helped push me along the way, but I eventually connected with a doctoral student who was strong in the areas that I felt weak. I felt weird asking people for help, but I realized that the community is there to support one another. If someone had asked me for help in one of my strengths, I was happy to do that. So getting to know my classmates better, their interests and strengths ultimately made a big difference.
Do your best to take advantage of as many of the opportunities as you can during your time in the EOHS program. It is a great opportunity to go to school here and be surrounded with people that are passionate about the same things you are.