Meet EPA Environmental Engineer Briana Niblick, Ph.D.
As an environmental engineer in the Land and Materials Management Division of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Dr. Briana Niblick develops and applies new methods and tools in the area of life cycle assessment. Some of her previous work includes compiling end-of-life inventory data for construction and demolition materials and tracking these resource streams across the United States. Prior to joining EPA, Dr. Niblick was a post-doctoral researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics in Stuttgart, Germany, where she co-developed a screening method for biodiversity impacts in life cycle assessment.
Tell us about your background.
I am the third generation of my family to be raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Growing up in a historical city gave me immediate access to local narratives of United States history and shaped my desire to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
I went to Lafayette College for undergraduate studies and double majored in Civil and Environmental Engineering and German. After graduating from Lafayette in 2006, I volunteered with AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Civic House, where I worked to introduce first-year students to concepts of civic engagement. The following year, I received a Fulbright Scholarship to Austria, where I designed and implemented sustainability metrics for a European Union Framework project involving ecological sanitation in East Africa. Through this project, I had the opportunity to learn from technical experts and local government officials in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.
I returned to the U.S. in 2008 and began my graduate studies in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. I completed my Masters and Ph.D. as part of a program called the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), which is an interdisciplinary National Science Foundation fellowship that pairs U.S. graduate students with regional or international programs for coordinated research training and career development. As part of the IGERT program, I spent six months as a visiting scholar at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in Brazil.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I always took advantage of math and science courses and had some extraordinary teachers who encouraged me along the way. The first time that I knew I not only wanted to be an engineer, but that I also wanted to pursue sustainability research, was midway through college. I was leading the Water Quality team in Lafayette College’s Engineers Without Borders group and we were helping several communities in the Yoro region of Honduras with small-scale water infrastructure projects. During this time, I had my first encounter with life cycle assessment, and more specifically, with life cycle management. When you enjoy the work you do, it no longer seems like work and becomes an integrated part of your life. This was definitely the case for me. Our EWB team went on to win an EPA P3-People, Prosperity and the Planet -3 Grant for this sustainability and service-learning work.
How does your science matter?
Life cycle assessment is an internationally standardized method used to calculate potential environmental impacts across all phases of a product or service, from the extraction of natural resources through material processing and manufacture, through the use phase and finally disposal or recycling. The real power of LCA is to be able to translate the sum of a system’s material and energy flows into a comprehensive set of potential environmental impacts. LCA matters because it provides a systems-based view of everyday activities. Life-cycle information empowers people and organizations to make data-informed decisions for the common good of the environment, economy, and society.
What do you like most about your research?
My favorite part of research at EPA is learning from my colleagues. There are very few places in the world where you can walk down the hallway and find experts from any number of diverse scientific disciplines. I enjoy finding new ways to think about topics and translating methods between different disciplines.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist. I would listen to his stories. Many of his published accounts highlight his ability to gather the fundamental details of a situation and then interpret what he’s seeing versus what he thinks he knows.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
I almost did a PhD program in German. These days, I enjoy hobbies outside the EPA such as singing in local choirs and practicing a form of contemplative photography called Miksang. Taking time for hobbies allows my mind to slow down each day. Then I return to work in the morning with fresh perspective.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
I’d teach people to truly listen to one another and hear what is being said. So many of our missteps come from a simple lack of understanding.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
Take all the math and science courses you can. Don’t skip statistics. Also learn a foreign language or two. Seek out mentors, regardless of their area of expertise. Learn from people already in the workplace. Try new experiences as early as possible.
What do you think the coolest scientific discovery was and why?
Our ability to go into space and carry out experiments on the international space station has expanded what we imagine to be possible. These experiments advance our science here on earth while also sparking creative solutions to existing problems.
What's the coolest day you’ve ever had at work?
In September 2017, I had my first opportunity to represent EPA on an international level at the biennial Life Cycle Management (LCM) Conference in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. LCM is the largest life-cycle conference in the world and participants were very curious about EPA research. We’ve always been told that EPA is known as one of the premier scientific institutions in the world. In Luxembourg, I really felt it.
Describe any steps you take in your daily life to protect the environment.
I take the bus to work, and I use the monthly EPA bus pass. One thing to keep in mind is that protecting the environment doesn’t need to be a sacrifice. When you take the bus, you never know who you are going to meet.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.