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Meet EPA Scientist Naomi Detenbeck

Naomi Detenbeck is a problem solver—and that comes across in the work she does. She works on decision-support tools, like the Watershed Management Optimization Support Tool, to find solutions to water management issues.

Tell us about your background.

I have a Master’s and Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.  I started out as a limnologist. I studied the effects of acid rain on nutrient cycling and benthic algal growth as part of an interdisciplinary project involving incremental acidification of a basin of Little Rock Lake in northern Wisconsin.  In my postdoctoral work I started to explore landscape ecology--evaluating the cumulative effects of wetland loss in the landscape on quality of downstream lakes and rivers.  I joined EPA in 1991 as a technical lead in wetlands research.  Since then, I have studied multiple research topics, including nutrient criteria development, biogeochemistry, watershed classification and diagnostic techniques, wetland ecology, landscape ecology, disturbance ecology, effects of natural and constructed green infrastructure, decision support, stream temperature models, and spatial statistical network modeling.

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

My parents were both scientists.  My dad taught college-level physics and my mom went back to get her Master’s degree in Geology when I was in high school.  I can remember even before grade school watching my dad test out physics demos in the basement for an educational series he was helping to present.  At the time, it seemed like magic – watching him produce giant sparks or convert water to hydrogen and oxygen with electricity.  As a family we spent time hiking, backpacking and canoeing, all of which got me interested in the environment.  I lived in Vermont from 4th grade on, and the state has always been proactive in environmental protection.

How does your science matter?

My current research is helping to solve scientific puzzles: How is development affecting aquatic life in streams and rivers and how can we mitigate those effects?  My work on decision-support tools is helping communities to find cost-effective and holistic solutions to water resources management problems.

What do you like most about your research?

I enjoy problem-solving and the opportunity to make a difference in environmental protection.  The work never gets stale – there are always new statistical, geographic information system analysis, and modeling approaches to learn.  I also enjoy the opportunity to work with students in different phases of their careers.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be? What would you ask him or her?

I was always fascinated by Jane Goodall’s work when I was growing up, in part because of her zest for adventure but also her willingness to break down the traditional paradigms in her field of animal behavior and learn through careful observation.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

Either working as a park ranger or a veterinarian.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

Creating world peace – why not?

Any advice for students considering a career in science?

First I would emphasize the need for strong quantitative skills that will lay the foundation for your later work.  You can never take too much math and statistics!  Second, I would suggest focusing some effort on a second specialty – although there are important advancements to be made in any field, there are also important advances at the interface between disciplines.

What do you think is our biggest scientific challenge in the next 20/50/100 years?

One of our biggest challenges in the next decades will be figuring out how to improve the quality of life in developing countries without accelerating the pace of global environmental degradation, ensuring we don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Whose work in your scientific field are you most impressed by?

There are many different facets to my work so it depends on which I am focusing on in any particular week.  When it comes to providing conceptual frameworks for information sharing, comparing ecosystems, and collaborative modelling projects, I’ve been tremendously impressed by the developers of the Australian OZCoasts information system.

You’re stranded on a desert island with a community of other survivors – what is your job?

Encouraging people to work together to find solutions.

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