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Meet EPA Engineer Steve Clark

EPA Environmental Engineer Steve Clark.

Steve Clark is an environmental engineer in EPA’s Center for Envvironmental Solutions and Emergency Response (CESER). His research focuses on water infrastructure resilience. Resilience refers to the ability to resist and recover from various man-made and natural hazards. His work experience began in the Water Program of the Maryland Environmental Health Administration. He then spent  a few years as the chief of utilities for US Army at Fort Meade, MD before joining the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water to do technical analyses supporting the national drinking water standards.  After September 11, 2001, he was reassigned to the Water Security Divison and then came to the former National Homeland Security Research Center (NHSRC) in 2004. 

How does your science matter?

Most of us take for granted that water, electricity and other public utilities will be available as needed. As our infrastructure has aged failures like catastrophic pipe breaks occur more frequently. One current area of interest is cost-effectively detecting and repairing minor leaks before they become a problem.  A currently planned project will examen the use of satellite radar to pinpoint these leaks and expedite repairs.

Water utilities are required by federal law to conduct a vulnerability analysis every five years.  EPA has been a partner with the American Water Works Association for several years to develop a voluntary standard to better implement that law.  I have been a member of that Risk and Resilience Standard committee since its inception.     

One of the major risks to water utilities from disaster is loss of electrical power for pumping.  That has occurred frequently due to wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the southeast. Over the past few years, I’ve been working with various associations, US Department of Energy and others toimprove cooperation at the water-energy nexus.  The preliminary approach is to identify areas of mutual interest through workshops and provide guidance on implementing those ideas over the next couple of decades.      

What do you like most about your research?

I like that my research involves all different kinds of people: utility operators, engineers, environmental and social scientists who look at all aspects of resilience. We are integrating all of our different knowledge into the improvement of these essential functions. It's interesting to put together all of these ideas to make our research useful.

When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was in junior high, my mother worked as a secretary for a psychiatrist. She found out I was interested in science and would send microbiology books home with my mother. Those books fed my interest in science and medicine.

In high school, I volunteered at a hospital and discovered I did not deal well with the sight of blood. So I decided to go into public health as opposed to medicine.

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

I would like to speak with Sir Alexander Fleming . He discovered penicillin almost by accident! He was doing research on the staphylococcus bacteria because he was concerned about wound infection. In the early 1900s, if you had a gunshot wound, they would treat it with an antiseptic on the surface. Unfortunately, this would often cause the wound to go deeper, making the infection worse.

He was studying a bacterium when his plate got contaminated by a mold that was secreting something that killed the bacteria, which he eventually named penicillin. He couldn’t figure out a way of producing penicillin commercially, but other people figured that out a few years later. Penicillin was being mass produced before we invaded the beaches of Normandy, so it saved millions of lives almost immediately.

Fleming had a knack for observation. I would like to ask him why he kept looking at the plates after they were contaminated; what made him pursue it? He pursued something that most people would have thrown in the trash. 

Tell us about your background.

As an undergraduate, I studied biological sciences at UMBC near Baltimore, MD. Then I worked for five years for the Maryland State Health Department. Afterward, I went to graduate school for environmental health engineering at the John Hopkins School of Public Health, where I received my Masters degree.

If you were not a scientist, what would you be doing?

"If I were not a scientist?" That's kind of funny! I have a great need to understand the natural environment and how things work, so I would do anything that would involve better understanding how things work and how to solve practical problems.

Any advice for students interested in a career in science?

I’d emphasize approaching your work with the scientific method in mind.  For example, having a control group in an experiment is extremely important. Without one, you might miss the whole point!

Learn to communicate well, both verbally and in writing. You must communicate well as a scientist. Your understanding of something doesn’t mean anything until you can communicate it to someone else.

Finally, be observant! Look for things that seem out of the ordinary or unexpected and try to explain them.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.