Details in Data: Learning How to Manage Data to Affect Environmental Policy
Through her undergraduate coursework in evolutionary biology and ecology, Alexandra Bijak sparked an interest in conservation, motivating her to pursue a career in science. After spending a semester abroad in Tasmania studying zoology and working with a non-profit in the U.S. learning about ecological restoration, as well as legal barriers to conservation projects, Bijak decided to earn a Master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia.
As she was preparing to defend her Master’s thesis, Bijak knew that she wanted to apply the ecological concepts that she had learned in a practical setting to affect environmental policy. A colleague pointed her to an ORISE fellowship program with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) related to aquatic resource monitoring. She applied because it presented an opportunity to expand her knowledge of scientific research skills addressing environmental issues. She was later accepted, and began her internship in Washington D.C.
The EPA Research Participation Programs provide college students, recent graduates, and university faculty opportunities to participate in current environmental research in areas such as air and radiation, water quality, solid waste and emergency response.
Her research was based within the National Aquatic Resource Surveys program, which is an ecological monitoring effort for coastal waters, lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. From these bodies of water, the survey collects water, sediment, and benthic invertebrate samples, and these samples are used to assess ecological health across the nation as related to nutrient pollution, sediment toxicity, and biodiversity.
Bijak’s research efforts were focused on improving methods to manage the large amounts of raw data received from the laboratory and adding them to an internal database. She learned the statistical computing language R and used it to write code that manipulates raw datasets and checks for inaccuracies and missing entries. After the data was sorted through and cleaned, Bijak was tasked with communicating the results to the public through simplified yet informative outreach methods.
Bijak is currently learning how to use web software to develop an interactive online tool that allows for states and other research groups to access and explore the National Aquatic Resource Surveys datasets. Along with this, they will also be able to manipulate the data through point and click table generation and intuitive chart displays for quick summary statistics.
As to what her research is accomplishing, Bijak says that making data more useful and timely for state partners will make it easier for them to interpret findings and take appropriate action to improve the health of state waters.
Bijak says that her ORISE fellowship with the EPA has taught her a lot about survey design, geospatial concepts, applied statistics, and has diversified her communication skills. When asked if she would recommend the program to others, Bijak responded, “Yes, this is a great program for recent graduates interested in learning how science informs federal monitoring and policy."
Currently, Bijak is beginning a project that analyzes contaminant levels in coastal and lake sediments, hoping to find how the concentrations of various contaminants vary across the country.
The EPA Research Participation Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for the U.S Department of Energy by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).