Career of the Month
By Luba Vangelova
Environmental health scientists study how environmental toxins impact human health, and work to mitigate such risks. They may be employed by government agencies, universities, or private companies, and specialize in areas such as environmental remediation (cleanup); consumer-product and chemical-safety testing; food manufacturing; landfill management; and occupational health and safety. It’s a multi-disciplinary field that pulls from social science, environmental science, and public health. The work can involve research, training, sampling sites, cleaning up polluted areas, and advising policymakers. Casey Bartrem is an environmental health scientist who serves as the executive director of Terragraphics International Foundation (TIFO) in Moscow, Idaho.
My work varies, depending on whether I’m in the field or in my office. When I’m working in the field, I collect environmental samples, determine risk factors for environment-related health problems in local populations, and train people at partner organizations to do the same. I observe cultural practices too, because they influence how people are exposed to contaminants. I also teach a class in Armenia three weeks a year on these topics.
When I’m working at my office, I’m analyzing data, doing research, managing databases, preparing reports, making recommendations, coordinating with project partners, or applying for grants to do more projects. I also do a lot of outreach and education to increase awareness about environmental issues. For example, we’re trying to get people to think about how climate change affects mining and environmental health—cleaner energy products are very mineral-intensive, increasing the demand for such materials, especially from low-income countries, where mining regulations are not well enforced. This can impact environmental health.
My favorite part of my work is how diverse it is—I don’t ever have a day, week or year that is the same as any other. Depending on the project phase and country, there’s always something new and exciting and challenging. The field is young and very interdisciplinary, so there’s lots to learn and incorporate into what we do. Math has always been my weakest subject, so crunching numbers is not fun. But the calculations tell us a lot about risk levels, so it’s worth it.
I worked as a field technician for two years, starting in my last year of college. I worked on a wildlife toxicology project, where my job was to catch animals and collect data. I captured great horned owls and drew blood from them. I surveyed insect populations in a river, to see how chemical pollution was affecting the ecosystem. I loved being outdoors and got an incredible amount of experience. Later on, the Nigeria project I worked on after joining my current employer was a life-changing event.
I’ve always been curious about why things work way the way they do as well as passionate about environmental justice. In college I started out in environmental studies, but found it was more policy than science, so I switched to zoology, and then landed in environmental biology. I was interested in plant and animal life and enjoyed learning how it all interacted. After working as a field technician for two years, I served in the Peace Corps in Lesotho. I did a lot of work on HIV/AIDS and started thinking more about human health. I also wanted to keep working internationally and learning about different cultures. That comes with its own set of challenges, although I find things are more rewarding when they’re hard.
After coming back to the United States in 2009, I was trying to figure out what do with my life. While visiting a friend in Idaho, I learned about a local engineering company that was doing international environmental work. I contacted the head of the company to ask about internships. At that meeting, I learned about the field of environmental health and was sold on it. I managed to get an internship, and worked on writing reports about completed projects.
A few months into my internship, I had the opportunity to work on an urgent new project in Nigeria, where 400 children had died within six months because of lead poisoning. I transitioned to that, first as an intern and eventually as a full-time employee. I worked on that project for three years, spending half of each year in Nigeria. We determined how lead from artisanal mining impacts people’s health, and worked with the local government, physicians, and residents to address the effects, including cleaning up the mining areas to reduce people’s exposures to heavy metals. Mining is the only source of income in many communities, so we’re still working to prevent this from happening again.
In 2012, I was offered a student stipend to get a PhD, which allowed me to do academic research on the Nigeria project. The engineering firm’s owners eventually sold the company and started a nonprofit to continue the international environmental work, so I moved over to that organization. I finished my PhD in 2017 and became TIFO’s executive director.
Knowledge, skills and training needed
You need a strong foundation in science, whether biology, ecology, or health, in order to understand how chemicals move through the environment and affect our bodies. You need a knowledge of math to be able to do data analysis. You have to understand where the data comes from, so you have to be willing to do field work as well (which is the fun part). Communication skills and the ability to work well with other people are important skills for every job. If you have good information but can’t communicate it well, it’s not nearly as powerful.
Advice for students
This is challenging but rewarding work, and there will always be a demand for creative solutions to environmental problems. Just don’t expect to have a straight path to a career—things can shift quite a bit along the way, as you learn new things and have new experiences.