Environmental Scientists


Exploring this Job

Talk to an environmental scientist about his or her career. Read books, magazines, and journals about environmental science to learn more about the field. Visit Web sites such as (e) ScienceNews (http://esciencenews.com) and ScienceDaily (http://www.sciencedaily.com) for the latest news and developments in environmental science. The K–12 section of the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site is another good place to explore environmental science. Visit http://www.epa.gov/students for ideas on ways to explore your neighborhood, start an environmental project, check out environmental careers, and earn environmental awards.

The Job

Environmental science is interdisciplinary, drawing from many scientific areas to better understand environmental issues that have been caused by humans as well as natural activity. It is the study of the interaction between biological, chemical, and physical components of the environment and their effects on all organisms. Environmental scientists use scientific principles, methodologies, and tools to identify and analyze environmental problems and solutions—such as cleaning up oil spills, the elimination of radioactive waste, and the reduction of toxic chemicals created during industrial processes. Because many environmental problems cover multiple scientific areas, environmental scientists often consult with other scientists and may also work in teams that consist of scientists who specialize in different areas. 

Environmental scientists are knowledgeable about biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, and earth sciences such as geology. They are also well versed in social science, political science, economics, and environmental legislation and policies. They collect and assess data for governmental agencies, industry, environmental programs, and the general public. Depending on their specialty, they gather soil, water, or air samples to identify, abate, or eliminate sources of pollutants or hazards that affect the environment and or human health. Their work may be used to help design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water so that it complies with state and federal environmental regulations. Another large part of their job entails identifying and assessing risks, and writing risk assessments based on their findings. In these assessments, they describe risks that may occur from construction and other environmental changes. They also write technical proposals and give presentations to managers and regulators.

The issues environmental scientists are called on to help address may include global warming and other global climate change problems, energy and natural resource depletion, the effects that energy exploration and extraction techniques such as deep-sea drilling and fracking have on the environment, air or water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, coral reef damage, habitat destruction, the spread of infectious disease, pesticide-resistant bugs, and monitoring and safely disposing of waste. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, environmental scientists are similar to physical and life scientists in the training they receive and work they do, but the difference is that they focus on environmental issues. They specialize in subfields such as environmental biology or chemistry, environmental ecology and conservation, or fisheries science. There are many job titles within the category of environmental science. Environmental ecologists, for example, study the interrelationship between organisms and their environments. They examine the effects of population size, pollutants, precipitation, climate, and other factors on both the organisms and environments. Ecological modelers use mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and computer techniques to study ecosystems, pollution control, and resource management. Climate change analysts conduct research to determine how the changing climate is effecting ecosystems. Environmental chemists study chemical toxicity, examining the effects these chemicals have on people, animals, and plants. Geoscientists are environmental scientists who study the earth. Other aspects of environmental scientists' work include processing and reviewing environmental permits, licenses, and related materials; reviewing and implementing environmental technical standards, guidelines, policies, and formal regulations that meet requirements; and investigating and reporting on accidents that affect the environment.

Environmental scientists use a variety of tools in their work, such as digital mapping, remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), and global positioning systems (GPS). They may use air samplers or collectors, radiation detectors, soil core samplers, water samplers and analyzers. Depending on their specialty, the technology they use might include pollution modeling software and emissions tracking software. Some of the computer programs environmental scientists need to be well versed in are Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW, and various map creation software programs.