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Science Notebook

Science Notebook: Interview with John Griggs

John Griggs, Director of EPA's Center for Environmental Radioanalytical Laboratory Science

EPA Science Notebook Coordinator Dr. Dale Haroski recently interviewed John Griggs, the center director for the Center for Environmental Radioanalytical Laboratory Science (CERLS) at EPA's National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory in Montgomery, Alabama. Learn how this former college professor ended up at EPA and why he'd like to have dinner with Einstein and Newton.

DMH: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me John. Since this is a scientist interview I always start out by asking people about their educational background. Basically, what kind of scientist are you?

JG: I'm a chemist. I have a Bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in chemistry from Auburn University. I'm currently the center director for the radiochemistry group at EPA.

DMH: And for those out there who are now wondering what radiation has to do with chemistry, can you tell me what that is?

JG: Radiochemistry really focuses on the chemistry of radionuclides. A key aspect of radiochemistry is separating out trace amounts of the radionuclides from the sample matrix for measurements. In the environmental arena we are often measuring very low levels of certain radionuclides in the environment

DMH: What brought you to EPA?

JG: At the time I was teaching at a university and a position became open at this laboratory (NAREL) and it just seemed kind of interesting to me. It was an area that I wasn't really familiar with but I thought it would be an interesting learning opportunity so that's what brought me in.

DMH: And how long have you been with EPA now?

JG: I've been here almost 18 years.

DMH: That's a long time! So clearly you must like your job?

JG: Yes I enjoy it very much, absolutely.

DMH: Do you still get to do a lot of field or laboratory work in your current position?

JG: I'm a laboratory person but I'm not in the lab much at all anymore because I'm more of a manager/supervisor.

DMH: Do you miss the lab?

JG: Yeah I do actually. I do teach part time at a local university and I used to teach chemistry labs so I still get a little hands on there at the college level lab but besides that I do miss being in the laboratory.

DMH: It's good that we have people like you John because chemistry and I didn't get along one bit in college! You mentioned teaching, what other types of jobs did you have before you came to EPA?

JG: Primarily teaching at the college level.

DMH: What's the most important thing you've worked on at EPA?

JG: I chaired a multi-agency workgroup that developed the Multi-Agency Radiological Laboratory Analytical Protocols or MARLAP manual. It was a multi-year effort that involved eight other government agencies including DOE, DHS, DOD, NRC, USGS, FDA, NIST, and a few states. It was a guidance document for radiological laboratories and all the activities that go on in the laboratory and also provides guidance for planners who are going to need laboratory services. It turned out to be a 1500 page guidance document but it was probably my most important accomplishment because there was definitely a gap there. It filled a need.

DMH: OK, moving away from work stuff for a bit, what do you do for fun?

JG: I spend time with my family - my wife and two kids. Both my kids, I have a son and daughter, play soccer and I've coached their recreational soccer teams. So basically having fun is traveling with them and doing things together as a family.

DMH: Time for another science-y type question. What is your favorite scientific discovery of all time?

JG: Hmmm, I don't know if technically it's a discovery but it would be Einstein's theory of relativity. As a young kid any theory that dealt with time and space was pretty intriguing to me and it still is. I guess it's sort of a discovery but I'd list that as my favorite scientific thing of all time.

DMH: What profession other than your own would you choose to do and why?

JG: Well I'd definitely stay in the sciences because that's really what I love so if I were not a chemist I think probably the field of molecular genetics. I think it's a pretty fascinating area with a huge potential to cure diseases etc. To me there is an endless supply of research there to look at genetics. That would be pretty intriguing I think.

DMH: Well conversely, what profession would you not want to do?

JG: I wouldn't want to be a dentist. Nothing against dentists but something about that doesn't seem to be very appealing to me.

DMH: That's often one I think of too. When I go to the dentist I think "Who would want to poke around in someone's mouth all day?" Blech.

JG: It's obviously a good profession and an important one and we need them but that's just one job I would not want to do.

DMH: Me neither. But speaking of careers, any advice for students considering a career in science?

JG: I would say, and this probably applies to careers outside of science, but find something that really interests you and challenges you. If ultimately you do stick with a career for your working life you want something that you enjoy doing and that you find interesting and that pushes you a little bit. I think science tends to do that because there are always new discoveries and it's always changing. You can't just sit back and rest on your past knowledge because pretty soon you're outdated to a certain extent.

DMH: What I like about science too is that there is room for movement. I was a biology undergrad but my Master's and Ph.D. are in ecology and evolution and I've done field work in tropical and east coast settings, worked on science policy here at the agency and now I'm doing science communication. I like that you can move around in the sciences while continuing to feed your interests.

JG: I agree with you 100 percent. If you've got the basic scientific thinking down that really applies to any kind of scientific discipline, you can easily transition it over to another discipline. I mean, you have to fill in the factual information part through reading and studying but to a large degree science is just brining that scientific approach to a problem. Once you've done it in one discipline you can transition to another. You have to learn the other discipline but that's part of ongoing learning.

DMH: I see that a lot here at EPA actually. Many people are still in the scientific field but they're not where they started out as an undergrad or where they thought they were going to end up. I hope that students realize the potential for growth and flexibility in the field.

JG: I think that's exactly right. I really didn't have a background in radiochemistry when I came to this laboratory. I had a background in chemistry obviously and a lot of the principles applied but being able to adapt is a critical part of being a scientist.

DMH: OK, enough serious talk. If you could travel anywhere in the world for vacation where would you go and why?

JG: Greece. I'm of Greek decent and my wife is Greek and she's been there several times but my son and I haven't been. I have distant relatives there but besides that just the ancient history is amazing. I suppose it would be like going back to discover my ancient roots!

DMH: Sorry but I have to go back to the science again. What is your favorite science word?

JG: Hmmm, well there is a word I enjoy when I'm teaching so I'll probably use that as my favorite word for now. It's stoichiometry. It just deals with quantities and proportions and is pretty basic but it's fun when I talk to students about it because it just gets a lot of raised eyebrows as a word.

DMH: When you think about it there are probably a lot of complicated science words that describe pretty basic things. Then again, that's why I have a job in science communication!

Next question! If you could have dinner with any scientist past or present who would it be and what would you like to ask them?

JG: Ummm, I think there would be two if that's ok. One would be Albert Einstein and the other would be Sir Isaac Newton. They may not be able to explain it but beyond the fact that they made enormous contributions to science, they both made revolutionary contributions to science. There was almost an explosion of knowledge with both of them. Of course, that's genius and I don't know if you can really explain how genius works but I'd be curious to know how both of them were able to come up with something so original that is, if they could even explain it.

DMH: The thought processes are pretty amazing and certainly awe inspiring.

JG: For most of us who are scientists we've studied and worked hard and learned our respective fields but we sort of operate in a framework that's been prepared for us. When you look at people like that who blaze a new trail, particularly if it's extraordinarily innovative, you just wonder how that comes about. Is it some mysterious element called genius or is it just a few thoughts and observations that come together and something solidifies and an idea forms.

DMH: I think as scientists we're all sort of driven by that quest for discovery and want to have that "Aha!" moment. Some just have it on a much bigger scale!

JG: I think there are also that select few who are able to look at things that don't appear to be truly linked and where most people don't see a linkage or connection they are somehow able to see what's hidden in nature. It's there but sometimes you need that genius to make that connection and that's when everyone else says "Oh yeah, I see that now!"

DMH: So basically you have to be willing to think outside the box.

JG: Yes and there is that creativity in science that gets ignored sometimes. You can almost relate it to like being an artist. Most people don't think of scientists as creative. I bet if you asked people for words to describe scientists creative wouldn't be one of the ones they applied.

DMH: Switching topics once again, another question. What book are you reading right now?

JG: I'm reading an interesting book, an older book, called the History of God by Karen Armstrong. It's a timely book in that it looks at monotheistic religions and how they evolved.

DMH: OK, here are the last few rapid fire questions. MP3s or vinyl?

JG: MP3s.

DMH: I haven't gotten anyone to say vinyl. Maybe people just don't know what that is anymore! Next question, PC or Mac.

JG: PC. My daughter is Mac but I'm PC.

DMH: That seems to be the case for most parents these days! Last question, chocolate or vanilla?

JG: Chocolate. Did anyone say vanilla yet?

DMH: No, so the data seems to indicate that scientists prefer chocolate but more research is needed. It sort of makes you feel bad for vanilla! Anyway, that's it for my questions. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

JG: No problem.

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