Sonam Gill MSEM '13 and MBA '13
didn't think twice about giving up her summer vacation to research San Joaquin
Valley towns that showed high rates of health defects in children, poor air
quality, and pesticide-contaminated water.
For Gill, the research was more
than theoretical. She has family living in the San Joaquin Valley and said that
environmental inequalities based on geography, race, ethnicity, or other
factors can lead to increased cases of asthma, cancer, and birth defects. She
sees her research, part of an internship with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as a steppingstone to a career in raising awareness about low-income,
minority, and child populations living in polluted and toxic areas.
"Exposures to insufferable
conditions endured on a daily basis are not normal and are a breach of
justice," Gill said. "Many of these environmental issues have a synergistic effect
on the health of the communities in the valley."
Two other USF students, Degen
Kelly '13 and Elyssa Bairstow '12, joined Gill at the EPA this past summer. All
three were part of a select cohort of 40 university students chosen from across
the nation to intern alongside experts from the EPA and NASA's Ames Research Center. Students worked on projects around San Francisco and Silicon Valley to
improve environmental and earth science research, as well as environmental
decision-making by politicians and policymakers, by applying earth science data
and technology to local problems.
"As two of the largest scientific agencies in the federal
government, we're proud to work with, engage, and inspire this next generation
of scientists and engineers who will carry our work forward," said Jared
Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, speaking for
his agency as well as for NASA. "Their work on these challenging, ambitious
projects has been very valuable."
Kelly, who interned 40 to 50 hours
a week with the EPA, calculated the cost of preventing street runoff debris
from reaching ocean waters. The answer? About $12 per person annually for
coastal cities in California and in other states, Kelly said. That's about
$16.6 million for a large-sized city such as San Jose and $2.8 million for a
medium-sized city such as Oakland.
That money could be put to better use if San Jose, Oakland,
and cities like them followed San Francisco's example: passing a plastic bag
ban and working with restaurants to use "greener" to-go containers. "Such
strategies would not only create a healthier, safer environment but also save a
lot of money," Kelly said. "My research was more or less a vital piece…to
continue moving forward with lessening marine debris."
Bairstow, who coordinated meetings and developed a web-based
forum for project sharing and communication, gained valuable project-management
experience as an intern — experience that led to a part-time job as a physical
science technician with the EPA, where she currently works.
Gill, who also landed a position with the EPA as one of
about a dozen environmental justice eco-ambassadors, is working with the San
Joaquin Valley environmental taskforce and the city of Richmond to address
local environmental inequalities.
"Before the internship, I worked at a biotech consulting
firm and I would stare at the clock waiting for it to hit 3, 4, and, finally, 5
o'clock," Gill said. "At the EPA, I often get so wrapped up in my projects that
I lose track of time."