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Capstone Offers Invaluable Real-World Experience

With help from a former professor, an environmental studies major finds work with the Environmental Studies Agency for an independent capstone.

Date: 4/12/2012
By: Douglas Lee

As I began to view my prospects for an independent capstone, I found myself e-mailing Dan Petersen, an old professor of mine, and I received great guidance and support. I had Peterson for “Environmental Risk Analysis,” a subject he teaches in a way that allows real-world applications to easily be seen in the classroom.

After quick correspondence with Petersen, I found myself in the Environmental Protection Agency building across the street from main campus, wondering what I had gotten myself into. It turned out to be an extremely beneficial and eye-opening experience in my academic career.

At the EPA, I was assisting Petersen in reviewing toxicological reports being sent in for publication and for submission to the IRIS database run by the EPA. This database is a collection of known harmful substances used as a reference guide for manufacturing, chemical and natural resource plants across the country.

I was able to experience the nitty-gritty analysis of an in-depth toxicology report, as well as discovering and learning the nuances and behind-the-scenes interactions that take place where hard science meets political discourse.
Douglas Lee works in the lab testing water potability.

Petersen and I discussed multiple research articles, data sets and statistical graphs, all concerning one chemical. Then after analyzing the data, he introduced me to the process of committee- and peer-review, which often takes place in Washington, D.C., under the scrutinizing eyes of whatever administration might be in office at the time. One could only hope that the opinion of said administration was a favorable one, or else a lot of hard science and hard work might fall on deaf ears.

I learned that in this country, it is often the procedure to find a chemical to be undoubtedly harmful before it can be taken off the market, whereas in other countries – most notably European countries – a chemical must be proven safe before it can even began to be manufactured en masse.

Admittedly, it was discouraging to know that hours of hard work and scientific study may be sent out only to be harshly criticized and sent back for months of additional revision and review just because lobbyists want to keep a potentially dangerous chemical on the market for continued profit. Though many substances can become poisonous at a high enough dose, I feel trying to lower the risk and incidence of exposure to a potent chemical for millions of people is a worthy endeavor, politics aside.

Each week I learned more about various chemicals, their reactions with the human body and the environment, and their place in this country’s ever-growing chain of production. What I also began to discover was that there are 10 more chemicals untested and continually in potentially hazardous use to every one seeing a report slowly grind through the gears of the regulative process. I learned that scientific regulation and prevention don’t always have the backing of the government that funds it.

What I learned most, though, is that in the face of all this, one of the most worthy goals one can strive for is to create a better environment for humanity – one painfully long and expertly scrutinized step at a time.

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