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With 12 National Labs, 10 regional offices, 18,000 employees...

By Stefan Falke 2000-02 AAAS Fellow at the EMPACT Program

With 12 national labs, 10 regional offices, 18,000 employees and its D.C. headquarters dealing with air, water, and soil issues, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) handles vast quantities of environmental data. Coordinating that information among the Agency’s many offices is perplexing.

During my first year as a AAAS Environmental Fellow, I worked with the Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking (EMPACT) program, which focused on providing the public with timely, accurate and useful information. As I joined the program, it was exploring ways to integrate the information generated by 60 local community projects. This was a daunting challenge as each project had developed its own methods for collecting, storing and communicating information.

My position as a AAAS Fellow gave EPA the added staff resources to participate in the Open GIS Consortium (OGC), a global group of government, industry, and academic members, which had been working separately to address some of these challenges. As the liaison between EPA and OGC I worked on a pilot project aimed at integrating near real time information from environmental monitoring networks. Part of the project involved demonstrating newly developed information technologies in a realistic scenario, where multiple environmental organizations needed to interact and share information in order to better respond to an environmental threat. As we were considering possible options, the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred and suddenly we had a real-life situation in which to apply our model.

I led EPA’s effort in redirecting the project to develop new technologies to assist future emergency management response. Within two months after the attacks, we met with New York City officials to discuss difficulties they faced in obtaining, integrating and communicating information (maps in particular) regarding the environmental hazards in lower Manhattan. The result was a demonstration project of how state-of-the-art information technologies can assist emergency response. Playing an influential role in such a timely and salient project and interacting with local, state, and federal agencies was a very rewarding aspect of my fellowship. Another major event, which occurred  during my fellowship, was the shutdown of the EMPACT program; a decision that was likely due to a variety of reasons including the recent change in administration, the opinion that the program had completed its mission as a pilot program, budgetary forces, and internal political struggles. I initially was concerned that the change would derail my projects. Fortunately, Fellows are mostly immune to abrupt changes associated with the closing of a program. As EMPACT’s director and staff relocated to other EPA offices and responsibilities, I was able to continue with my projects and see them to completion.

The contacts, experiences, and new friendships forged within the fellowship program have proved invaluable since leaving D.C. For example, during the second year of my fellowship I teamed with another AAAS Environmental Fellow and an EPA staffer (who had been a Fellow), in creating a new initiative with ambitious goals for distributed environmental information networks. The three of us continue to work together from our respective post-fellowship positions in striving toward this shared vision. By Stefan Falke

Stefan Falke served as a AAAS/EPA Environmental Fellow from 2000-02. He received a PhD in environmental engineering from Washington University. He is currently a research assistant professor in the Environmental Engineering Science Program at Washington University.

It is often the way a scientist thinks— his/her critical thinking skills—that are valued by the federal agencies that host AAAS Fellows each year, as much as any specific scientific or technical expertise a Fellow might bring. The 10  different AAAS policy programs, which provide about 50 fellowship awards each year, offer both focused and broad applications of a scientist’s or engineer’s training. How does an applicant decide which program will fit their background and education best? Try exploring, The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program’s Web site is full of first person articles that describe these various experiences through personal experience essays, faculty experience essays and an entire book by 60 former Congressional Fellows, From the Lab to the Hill. Enjoy!

Claudia J. Sturges - Director, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.