As an ecotoxicologist, Michel studies how contamination harms marine environments. NOS’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD) protects and restores coastal habitats and resources affected by hazardous materials releases. When oil or hazardous waste spills into marine or coastal environments or the Great Lakes, ARD experts work on the water, from airplanes, and in the lab to investigate how contamination harms animals, ecosystems, and outdoor recreation. This helps build a science-based case that attorneys then use to hold polluters accountable through legal settlements that fund environmental restoration.
After oil spills occur or hazardous waste is released into the environment, I investigate how the hazardous substances impact wildlife, habitats, and larger ecosystems. Sometimes this means doing lab work to see how oil harms developing fish eggs. Other times I’m in the field studying dolphins. Through my work on the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), I help hold others accountable for restoring the environment. I also work with the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean coastal hazardous waste sites in the Southeast.
While I have always loved the ocean, I actually studied pre-medicine in college. It wasn’t until my senior year that I decided I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. After graduating from college, I worked in an environmental laboratory for a few years, testing water and soil. This opened my eyes to environmental science, so I decided to get my master’s and doctorate degrees in marine science with a focus in ecotoxicology. A friend from graduate school told me about a job opening at NOAA as an ecotoxicologist, and I was hired after earning my degree. That was 20 years ago, and I’ve been studying hazardous waste in coastal and marine environments ever since!
I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work on health assessments for bottlenose dolphins over the years. Dolphins are at the top of the food chain, which means as they consume contaminated fish, chemicals build up in their system. To study these impacts, scientists and veterinarians sometimes capture wild dolphins to collect samples and study their health. This has many benefits. For example, if a dolphin is pregnant, we can track her in the following months to see if she and the calf are healthy. Working hands-on with dolphins is rewarding. It’s unlike any previous work I’ve done.