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EPA Interns Research Environmental Inequalities


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."

Written by Ericka Montes »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews