Susan Richardson 89G, a graduate of Fred Menger’s lab, has been a research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for over 20 years and discusses her insights about working at a government agency with graduate student Carol Jurchenko.
Q: What was the focus of your graduate school research?
SR: My graduate school research involved Physical Organic Chemistry. I was studying synthetic phospholipids and their packing behavior in monolayers. The ultimate goal of our work was to develop vesicles with synthetic lipid bilayers that could be used for controlled drug delivery. Many drugs, including harsh chemotherapy drugs have adverse side-effects because they act all over the body, not just at the intended tumor. The idea behind the research was to design vesicles with controlled fluidity and with functional groups that could allow the vesicle to be opened by an enzyme at a particular site in the body, releasing the drug to the specific place it is needed. A few years after completing graduate school, I read where someone from our research group was working for a pharmaceutical company, doing just this. Our very fundamental research actually came to fruition.
Q: While in graduate school, was it your plan to work at the EPA or a government agency in general?
SR: No, I actually had no idea that there was an EPA research lab in Athens, GA (kind of embarrassing to admit). The U.S. EPA National Exposure Research Laboratory in Athens, GA is actually quite famous in the international environmental research community, but I had never heard of it before. I really didn’t know what I would do when I completed graduate school, and I had never even taken an environmental class before…A professor at Emory, who supervised the graduate teaching assistants, told me about the EPA lab in Athens and thought I might like it there.
Q: What steps did you take to get your job at the EPA?
SR: One thing I did that made me very marketable was to learn as much analytical instrumentation as possible while I was in graduate school. I used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy mostly, but had a wonderful opportunity to also learn mass spectrometry (MS). At one point, the Chemistry Department needed student volunteers to help run samples in the MS lab. So, I got tons of great experience in high resolution-MS and this experience is what got me the job at EPA (first as a post-doc, and then 8 months later as a permanent federal scientist). It turns out that the gold standard of environmental analysis is mass spectrometry, with high resolution-MS becoming very popular. Just like MS can be used to identify newly made chemicals, it can also be used to identify unknown contaminants in the environment. And, MS has very low detection limits and can be used to analyze complex mixtures, which is typical of environmental samples.
Q: What would you recommend grad students learn or make an effort to experience if they are interested in working at a government agency?
SR: For those interested in doing research, I would recommend learning as many instruments as possible, particularly MS, which is used in so many different fields – not only in environmental research, but also in many other areas, including biomedical (proteomics/genomics), agricultural, pharmaceutical, and petroleum research. I would also encourage them to take a post-doc position if there isn’t a permanent position yet available because it can be a good “foot in the door” and can lead to other opportunities, as mine did.
Q: At the EPA, what are your typical duties throughout the day?
SR: I conduct research experiments, collect drinking water and other water samples, extract samples, and analyze using MS. I collaborate with many other scientists both inside EPA and outside EPA. My research in trying to solve the human health issues regarding drinking water disinfection by-products involves multidisciplinary collaboration with toxicologists, epidemiologists, water treatment engineers, and risk assessors. And, when my research projects are completed, I publish the results in peer-review journals, much like I did in graduate school.
Q: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
SR: I love having a direct link into important environmental/human health issues. And, I love being able to collaborate with other scientists to solve complex problems. It’s both challenging and fun!
Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of your work?
SR: Compared to other colleagues working at universities, many processes can be very slow at a government lab. For example, ordering equipment or analytical instruments can take a long time, and our publications have to be cleared through management at our laboratory before we can submit them to journals. So, there are some extra steps that take extra time working at a government lab.
Q: What skills did you learn at the EPA that graduate school did not teach you?
SR: At EPA, I learned how to be a Principal Investigator and come up with ideas for future research. When you are a graduate student, you are mostly working on an idea that your professor came up with. And, while you have some leeway through the research to come up with ideas within this area, it is a little different when you are the PI coming up with the bigger, new ideas for the overall research project. Also, I’ve learned how to establish new collaborations and work on multidisciplinary research projects, such that my chemistry piece integrates with the other pieces (toxicology, epidemiology, etc.) to solve the problems. This is something that happens organically, as you attend scientific conferences and interact with other scientists. It helps to be passionate about what you do because it is a bit contagious, and others will want to work with you to solve the complex problems you cannot do on your own.