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Science Notebook: Indoor Air Quality

Interview with Mark Clayton

Welcome to Scientist Showcase, a regular feature of EPA's Science Notebook. In this interview, EPA's Indoor Environments Division Communication Specialist Kelly Hunt talks with EPA Chemist Mark Clayton.

KH = Kelly Hunt (EPA, Communications Specialist)
MC = Mark Clayton (EPA, Chemist)

KH: Tell me about your science or educational background. What kind of scientist are you?
MC: I got my B.S. at the University of Kentucky and my Ph.D. from LSU. And right now I am an organic chemist with the Indoor Environments Division of EPA.

KH: So what exactly do you do at IED as an organic chemist?
MC: I work with products, organic chemicals, nano materials and mold. My job is to make sure I'm up to speed on the latest technology and inform management on upcoming and key issues.

KH: Sounds pretty complicated.
MC: It can be.

KH: How long have you been doing this at EPA?
MC: I've been here since last March.

KH: So with your background, how did you end up at the Indoor Environments Division?
MC: I worked for General Electric Appliances as an analytical chemist, and then was a professor at Delta University and Eastern Kentucky University. After that I became an Environmental Science Officer in the Army and did some air sampling in Afghanistan. Now I'm here.

KH: Ok, back up. How did you go from a professor to an Army officer serving in Afghanistan?
MC: It was on my bucket list. I always wanted to be an Army officer.

KH: Well, you can check that off your list. There must be something exciting about science then to steal you from the deployed military life. Which takes me to my next question: what's your favorite scientific discovery of all time and why?
MC: Any of Einstein's theories because he figured it out on his own and in his own mind. He was a postal worker in Vienna and thought of math as tool to get where he wanted; not an end all be all. He came up with energy = mass times the speed of light, which is kind of crazy when you think about it.

KH: That is kind of crazy. Here's one more random science question: what's your favorite science word and why?
MC: Plasma. It's sort of our word for "stuff."

KH: What's the most oddball or random job you've ever had?
MC: I was a chili cook in my hometown, Falmouth, Kentucky. I was 16. Cooking is probably the reason I became a chemist. I used to watch my mom cook. Cooking isn't much different than synthetic chemistry. Take making spaghetti, for example. You have a solvent, water; a reactant, spaghetti. Manipulate the product, separate it with a colander and there you go. In science you work for months to create some powder and you look at that stuff and think, you didn't exist in the universe until I made you. You put it together.

KH: I never really thought about science that way. That's pretty powerful. Now, work aside, what do you do for fun? Any hobbies?
MC: Running and sailing.

KH: I understand why you run, since you were in the military. But how'd you get into sailing?
MC: I read a book on fundamental sailing, made a friend who liked to sail, and then bought a boat from a nonprofit group for inner-city youth.

KH: Tell me one interesting thing about you? Any hidden talents? Interesting trips?
MC: I lived in Cuba for a year, from 2007 to 2008, when I was in the military. I got to be a brigade-level staff officer and got to see how good management and meetings are run. And how decisions are made.

KH: Only a few more questions, promise. Digital or film cameras?
MC: Digital.

KH: PC or Mac?
MC: I'm used to a PC, but I don't really care that much.

KH: Last question. Cake or pie?
MC: Crème Brule is my favorite. Is tiramisu a cake? Well, chocolate cake is one of the best cakes – with white icing – I suppose. But it's a tie between that and pumpkin pie.

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