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Science Notebook

Science Notebook: Interview with Kathryn Snead

Environmental scientist Kathryn Snead

EPA Science Notebook Coordinator Dr. Dale Haroski recently interviewed Kathryn Snead, an environmental scientist who works in the Office of Indoor Air and Radiation at EPA headquarters, where she develops plans and procedures for responding to radiation emergencies. With a diverse background in meteorology and environmental engineering, she is a scientist, communicator, traveler, wife and mom. Read on and meet Kathryn Snead!

DMH: Tell me about your science or educational background. Basically, what kind of scientist are you?

KS: Well, I have a degree in meteorology from North Carolina State University and I have a Master's degree in environmental engineering from Virginia Tech so that's the educational part.

DMH: And what do you do here at EPA?

KS: That's a really good question! I do radiological emergency response, program, planning and policy. My husband often jokes that if there is a big radiological emergency I will be running towards the phone while everyone else is running to safety. We try to support the EPA folks who actually do respond to the emergency. We basically do the policy and planning for them.

DMH: So with your background, how did you end up here at EPA?

KS: I was a private contractor for three years and at the time I was contracting to the Department of Energy (DOE) and DOE has a lot of radiological cleanup sites. I was doing program consulting for them but put my resume up on the EPA Web site. I wasn't even applying for a specific position, I just put it up on a general site and someone was looking for a person with radiological site cleanup and policy experience and when they typed in a set of keywords, my resume popped up! It was a little different than the usual process but I was delighted. I really enjoy working for the EPA and have been here seven years.

DMH: That's how long I've been here too and I did five years of contracting for EPA prior to becoming an EPA employee. It's a great way to learn what EPA does and to get your foot in the door.

KS: It is. For me, I started out wanting to be a meteorologist but found that I didn't like forecasting. It led me to looking at air pollution which eventually led me to EPA. What's interesting is that I find a lot of what I use in my job is not all science all the time. I use communication, planning and program management skills as well. It's not just science - you have to put a little bit of everything into it. I'm sure I went to school thinking "If I can possibly get out of school without writing a paper, that will be a good thing," and now all I do is write for a living. It's science writing but it's so important to be well-rounded.

DMH: OK , enough work stuff. What do you do for fun?

KS: What do I do for fun? I have two little girls which are fun. I have a 10-month-old named Carolyn and I have a 2-year-old named Alyce and that is a lot of time right there! We go to playgrounds and the mall, to the sports bounce, to the library for story time, Halloween stuff, Easter egg hunting, etc. If I have spare time it's generally spent doing fun things with little kids.

DMH: Oh, do you make a leprechaun trap for St. Patrick's Day?

KS: We haven't gotten into St. Patrick's Day yet but they both have birthdays around that time and birthday planning is big! That's a lot of what we do for fun but my husband and I love the movies so when we get a babysitter we often do that.

DMH: Ok, next question: what's your favorite scientific discovery of all time?

KS: Oh wow... (pauses)... hmmm... I'm still thinking... actually, kind of going into more modern science, I would have to say quantum mechanics fascinates me. It answers so many questions yet it opens up so many paradoxes. That's the one that sort of captures my imagination the most in a broad sense. I also love making jokes about it and playing with the ideas like "Hey, how did that pen get there? I don't know - it must have been electron tunneling!" Scientists are always very curious so you're always wondering "How does this work and how does that work?" Well you're a scientist so you know what I mean! Basically when you see the world this way there is a discovery to be made every day.

DMH: Very true, but before we go on I have to call you on this one. Making jokes about quantum mechanics is pretty typical "geeky scientist" but I guess we're all guilty of it! (laughing)

KS: Yeah, if the purpose of these interviews is to help the public realize that scientists are human too then maybe you should leave out the part about quantum mechanics jokes!

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

KS: I would love to be a teacher. I love explaining things and I get to do a little bit of that when I do training classes here at EPA but I really love teaching kids especially when they're really curious. I used to teach canoeing and sailing to Girl Scouts... I was a big Girl Scout for many years... and I just loved working with kids and teaching them.

DMH: What profession would you not like to do?

KS: Oh my goodness, that's tough because everything is kind of interesting. I often see things and think "Wow, wouldn't it be neat to be an airline pilot!" Well, based on recent experience I would not want to be a lawyer. We're working on some legal questions now at work and it seems like it's very challenging and sometimes very dry. I'm sure there are fascinating parts about being a lawyer that people can tell me about but I think I'm just not wired that way. I don't mean to insult any lawyers out there!

DMH: Everyone insults lawyers though don't they? I think lawyers are used to being the brunt of a lot of jokes so I'm sure they'll forgive us. Alright, next question. Any advice for students considering a career in science?

KS: My best advice honestly would be to learn how to write. I think no matter what you do in science whether you want to be a professor or a researcher or you want to work in policy and planning, almost no matter what you do you're going to need to learn how to write. Even the really technical folks in our labs need to write standard operating procedures about how they use their equipment. So that would be my big advice... just because you like science don't forget to take English or apply yourself in English.

DMH: It's funny but when I look back now, I think I actually got more of a basic writing education in high school because my schedule was so filled with science classes and labs as an undergraduate. It's definitely an important skill especially if you end up in science communication like me.
OK , back to work here! If you could travel anywhere in the world for vacation where would you go and why?

KS: My husband and I would love to go back to Australia. We went there for our honeymoon and we're both fascinated by natural things and the wildlife there is so completely different! I think we'd love to go to the northeastern edge to do the jungles and coral reefs but not until are children are much, much older than they are now!

DMH: What is your favorite science word?

KS: Talk about geeky - that's a really geeky question! I'm just trying to think of various options. Wow. I have one answer that I could not use on this web site so instead I'll go with meteorology because it's just sort of a fun word to say. I have actually run into somebody who thought that was the study of meteors. I had a very long conversation with him about meteors and I was going to correct him but then I figured he didn't want to hear that I really don't study meteors. I didn't want to disillusion him at that point!

DMH: (laughing) I guess you were somehow cooler when you studied meteors!

KS: I was cool when I studied meteors!

DMH: That's a great story. OK , if you could have dinner with any scientist past or present who would it be and what would you like to ask them?

KS: I would have to say Richard Feynman. He's a Nobel Prize winner, assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, and I've read a collection of short stories about him. He just seems like the most interesting, entertaining and fun guy. He's really known for being a character and story teller. If you have to have dinner with someone you want them to be interesting and he would not be boring. I've read two of his books and they are hysterical.

DMH: Speaking of books, what's the last book you read or what are you reading right now?

KS: I'm currently reading Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. I love reading the classics. I recently read Jane Eyre too. Maybe it stems from that "neglecting your English studies when you're a science major" thing but every once in awhile I like to read the classics. My commute is an hour on the commuter bus and that's where I do most of my reading because if I'm at home I have something else I should be doing.

DMH: I look forward to trips for the same reason! Only a few more questions now! MP3s or vinyl?

KS: MP3s. I have a player in my bag right now! My husband and I are getting more and more digital even when it comes to watching movies.

DMH: PC or Mac?

KS: Gosh, I wish I just had one that worked! PC I guess because that's what we use at work. My computer at home is what we call the "Frankencomputer" because it's put together from spare parts!

DMH: Last question: chocolate or vanilla?

KS: Chocolate. Definitely chocolate. But Girl Scout cookies did just come out...

DMH: Hmmm, it seems a lot of scientists are choosing chocolate. Someone might need to study this phenomenon! Thanks so much for your time!

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