Reflections on summer in Washington DC with the EPA, Julia Simpson

by Julia Simpson, winner of the Global Change Center’s 2019 Science Policy Fellowship with the Washington Semester Summer Program 

While the entirety of my undergraduate experience has yielded growth, personal and professional, across a variety of spectra, two things provided a strong influence on the path I chose for this past summer. One was a passion for biological sciences, my major at Virginia Tech; the second was a vested and continuous fascination with politics – the push and pull of the democratic process, and how its machinations on the national scale impact the populace of the country. To me, the connection between the two – between science and government – had always been clear, but throughout higher education, they are not consistently presented as such. However, when I saw the Global Change Center’s offer of a Science Policy Fellowship for students who were fascinated by both, I knew that applying for it was the right path for me. I was fortunate enough to be awarded this fellowship, for which I am endlessly grateful, because it allowed me to participate in the Washington Semester program. As a result of this, I spent the summer living in the Virginia Tech Gallery Apartments in Alexandria, Virginia, and serving as an intern at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. 

At the EPA, I was placed in the Federal Facilities Enforcement Office (FFEO). Though I went in unsure of what my role would be, I quickly found myself in a wonderfully welcoming, encouraging, and positive environment: every single one of my coworkers made an effort to make sure I felt included and productive. 

One main objective of the EPA is to ensure that all relevant parties, public and private – chemical manufacturers, power plants, laboratories, water treatment facilities, etc. – adhere to the regulations outlined in various national environmental statutes. These statutes, such as the Clean Air Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act, are put in place to ensure certain quality standards of the essential, natural, shared resources of our country; their goal is to uphold and protect human health and the environment. FFEO, under this directive, operated within a more specific sphere: its mission was to ensure that all federal agencies – such as the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, U.S. Army, and others – are held accountable to the same degree and by the same measures as everybody else. 

The majority of the interns at the EPA were law clerks, who then were assigned tasks relating to memo writing, research for ongoing cases, or supporting staff attorneys in other ways. However, as an aspiring biologist (someone with a “technical” background, as my coworkers put it) my assignments fell into a different category. One large portion of FFEO’s mission is accomplished by “targeting” federal facilities for inspection; they identify facilities that either 1) demonstrate a history of noncompliance with federal regulations, or 2) appear to have a chance of posing a threat to human health or the environment based on extensive data across a multitude of criteria. Thus, the majority of my assignments and projects were in the vein of data analysis. 

The biggest project I worked on was a statistical analysis studying the formal vs. informal enforcement actions that had taken place in the last five years, under four different environmental statutes, at all federal facilities across the country. This initiative was very exciting for me, because I carried it from cradle-to-grave: I came up with the idea, gathered all the data, analyzed it, and then assembled it into a digestible format. That last part was something of a personal goal for the summer: to improve my ability to translate hard scientific data into something understandable and usable for policymakers. I wanted to make the numbers tell a story that can then be reacted to or built upon. My analysis eventually turned into a 361-page report, which I then distilled into an hour-long presentation to my coworkers in FFEO. Not only were the results of the analysis both interesting and relevant to their work, but my methodology (particularly my efforts to make the data accessible) was very highly received. As a young scientist, it was one of my proudest moments. 

Interning at the EPA was an incredible experience, but it was especially meaningful to me at this point in my life. The theme of “transition” was consistent throughout the summer: in addition to my work at the EPA, I also was studying for the GRE, the next step between my current studies and further education. I was also taking a class through the Washington Semester program, whose lessons focused around topics such as preparing for interviews and how to network in a professional setting. I was constantly making connections, both with my peers in class and with my coworkers, establishing valuable (and enjoyable!) social and professional friendships. All of this was occurring, too, in the particular political climate that we find ourselves in today, and that complex atmosphere was a tangible, visceral thing in Washington. In these ways and more, the summer felt like a precipice, or a summit I was approaching.  From the beginning of the summer, I felt that reaching this summit (completing the summer and being successful in the things I set my mind to) would lay the solid foundation I needed for a strong finish to my undergraduate career. 

Now, looking back at the long, busy three months behind me, I can confidently say that I put my all into everything I did this summer, and I could not have asked for a more fulfilling, immersive, and positive formative experience. To all who supported me throughout this summer, particularly Dr. Morris, Director of the Washington Semester program (an endlessly patient, earnest, insightful mentor), and Lance Elson (biologist at the EPA, fellow science enthusiast, and friend): thank you for the part you played in making this summer as unforgettable as it was, and as influential for me as I know it will continue to be.

0