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Reflecting on 50 years of EPA Research

Published August 4, 2020

Jennifer at the Louvre EPA's Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta Dr. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta leads EPA’s Office of Research and Development as its Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator and EPA Science Advisor. In honor of EPA’s 50th anniversary, Dr. Orme-Zavaleta is reflecting on her career with the Agency, which started in 1981.

What interested you in a research career at EPA?

After reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in high school, I became interested in what people were doing and the impact we were having on this planet.

It was serendipity that brought me to EPA. When I was in college, a visiting professor gave a talk to our department. Afterwards, I had a chance to talk with him and he encouraged me to apply to his master’s program at Miami University of Ohio, which I did. He participated in a program that placed interns in EPA’s laboratory in Cincinnati. The program was very consistent with my interests, and I ended up interning at the EPA lab while I was working on my master’s degree.

Initially, what appealed to me most about research at the Agency was the ability to just keep learning. But what really hooked me was seeing how the science was actually being used for policy decisions—I could see the direct impact of my research.

What was research in the agency like when you first started? How has it changed while you’ve been here?

When I first started, we didn’t have laptops, computers, or email in the workplace. I remember typing up my thesis on a Lexitron, which was like a typewriter but it had a little tape recorder that would save what you typed. I thought that was just wonderful! It’s hard to believe how laptops and cell phones have improved the way we communicate.

In the laboratory, it was mostly traditional types of toxicology work that was being conducted at that time. There was a lot of animal testing. It was considered daring to look at in vitro assays and it was tough to get acceptance on the significance of the results of those studies. Our research was driven by questions about a single chemical or a single microbial exposures , whereas now we are looking at exposures to multiple chemicals and combinations of pollutants. There have been a lot of changes—as instrumentation has improved, so has analytical chemistry. The advent of sensor technology has improved monitoring as well as the way that we do research and the resources we have available.

 What are some of the biggest environmental problems EPA is currently tackling?

There are a couple of big issues we are focusing on now. One is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and emerging contaminants of concern. Long chain PFOA and PFOS have been around for a while, and EPA has been working to get a better understanding of the shorter chain PFAS focusing on where they are in the environment, how we are exposed, and what we can do to reduce that exposure. Much attention is focused on figuring out how can we destroy PFAS while not creating unanticipated byproducts that might be even more harmful.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is another topic that is top of our minds here at EPA, just as it is worldwide. We are collaborating with the public health community, CDC, and others to try to fill in some of the knowledge gaps. EPA is looking at how we can clean and disinfect public areas to minimize people’s risk of exposure. We are also evaluating how we can measure the virus in raw wastewater as an indicator of levels of the virus in a community. We are looking at whether it is possible to reliably test people for antibodies by swabbing saliva from a person’s mouth in order to create faster, more reliable, and more comfortable testing.

The single greatest strength of ORD is our staff. The great breadth of research expertise that is employed by this Agency is a powerhouse that can rise to meet any environmental or public health challenge. When there are unanticipated events—whether its Deep Water Horizon, Gold King Mine, COVID-19, or Fukushima—we have always had scientists who are able to think quickly and innovatively to help provide the critical information that has helped deal with these complex situations.

What are some things you’re most proud of throughout your career?

The first thing that really struck me about working at EPA was when I was a young student and saw that the research I worked on was used by the Agency to inform decisions. That really made me realize that I was where I wanted to be and the real-world impact that EPA research could have.

Later in my career, I spent time leading EPA’s water research program. I really enjoyed my time having the opportunity to help reshape the direction of our water research program integrating the drinking water and water quality research programs in to one holistic, systems-based program.

Another highlight was leading EPA’s exposure lab and helping to promote research in areas like non-targeted analysis, computational exposure, and advancing sensor technology. We focused on bring innovations to advancing real-world exposure science. This really is a different way of thinking about exposure. To me, understanding exposure really sets the context for everything else ORD does. Exposure sets the context for toxicity, risk, prevention and mitigation.

Now, as the Principal Deputy for ORD, I have had the chance to lead and shape the science that we are doing to better support the mission of the Agency. I’m so proud of this organization and to work alongside all of the great scientists and support staff who are working tirelessly day in and out to address the pressing issues of our generation. This job challenges me and allows me to draw on all of the different experiences I’ve had in my career.  

Who have you most looked up to throughout your career?

I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of wonderful mentors here at EPA. From my first days at EPA, I had the pleasure of working with people like Dick Bull and Dana Laurie who challenged me and taught me invaluable lessons including how to really think about practical applications of my research.

Then, during my time in EPA’s Office of Water, I had wonderful managers such as Joe Cotruvo, Ed Ohanian, Penny Fenner-Crisp who helped me continue to grow. Larry Reiter, a former Lab Director, brought me back to ORD, and gave me opportunities that have contributed to where I am today.

There are lots of people that I feel very honored to have worked with including Gil Veith and Dorothy Patton, who helped shape how I think and have given me the confidence in my abilities that I needed to lead this organization.

What future advances would you like to see in environmental and public health research?

The key word here is “and”—public health and the environment. That’s something that I have been focused on for much of my career - that interconnection between public health and the environment. I envision a future that is focused on the implications of what’s happening in the environment on public health. We need to be focused on a systems approach in how we think about what we do. We can’t operate in a silo but must look at the bigger picture and the interconnections between humans, human activity, and the environment. Our research on nutrients including harmful algal blooms, atmospheric modeling such as CMAQ, our computational toxicology and our PFAS research, is all headed in this direction. The more we are able to apply a systems approach to addressing environmental problems, the greater impact we will have in protecting public health.

What do you think EPA will look like in 50 years?

I think that in 50 years the problems that we will be tackling will be very different. I hope that 50 years from now, we aren’t still talking about lead or excess nutrients, and that we will be more proactive in protecting humans and the environment rather than reactive. We’ll have far different technology available to us than we do now. And as the world keeps moving towards space exploration, will our focus expand beyond the environment on this planet to others?

50 years is a long time—just look at all that has changed in these past 50 years! In 1970, I don’t think anyone could predict some of the issues we are facing now. So I’m not sure what the environmental crises will be in 2070, but I am sure EPA will continue to be at the forefront and still be providing the cutting-edge research that our country relies on to protect human health and the environment.