NOS’s Office of Response and Restoration are often the first ones on the scene when an oil or chemical spill occurs. They provide scientific expertise to predict where a spill is going and what impacts it might have; identify which animals, ecosystems, and communities are at risk; and recommend clean-up methods. NOS also develops software tools to help first responders prepare for and deal with spills. These provide a range of data and models, telling first responders about how oil and chemicals will change when exposed to the environment, what other chemicals in the area they might react with, and how they’re likely to move through air or water.
I am on call 24/7 to provide emergency chemical hazard assessments for the U.S. Coast Guard when there is an oil or chemical spill in the U.S. coastal zone or large navigable waterways (like the Mississippi or Ohio rivers). I’m also the chemistry team lead, so I coordinate the team’s projects, including emergency response, lab analyses, and training. I also contribute my knowledge of chemistry to several emergency response software programs that my group creates. And a couple times a year, I teach classes on the science of chemical spills, geared toward federal and state employees involved in emergency response and spill cleanup.
My route to this career was a winding road with several unexpected twists! When I finished graduate school, my first job was teaching chemistry at a community college, which I did for nearly two years. A friend from graduate school let me know about an opportunity to help NOS create a software database of chemical reactions. I applied and was hired for the position. Toward the end of the project, I got the opportunity to learn more about emergency response. I spent several years learning and gaining experience in emergency hazard assessments and working on other software projects. In the years since then, I have gradually taken on more responsibilities as I have gained more experience. Earlier this year, I was promoted to chemistry team leader.
Honestly, it’s exciting every time I work on a chemical spill. We have to provide our assessments within a two-hour timeframe, so the adrenaline is definitely going. When I provide a hazard assessment and hear back that we’ve given them the answers to their questions, I feel like I am making a difference and helping NOS and the Coast Guard do their jobs to protect the environment and the public.
Don’t underestimate the importance of honing your science communication skills. It is critically important for both emergency hazard assessments and teaching, and it will make you a better scientist. Don’t be afraid to say yes to new opportunities, even if they are outside of your comfort zone. Sounds cliché, but it’s how I got this job, which I love.