Practicum Profile: Chris Sibrizzi's EPA Internship

When MPH student Chris Sibrizzi started looking for an internship to fulfill his practicum requirement, he knew he wanted to get experience working at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dr. Peter LaPuma, the practicum director for the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, provided Chris with the contact information of Dr. Ed Ohanion from EPA’s Office of Water. Chris reached out to Ohanian and was invited to come in for an interview. “Ed was great about trying to help me find a project that was manageable for a summer internship,” Chris recalls. “Any interest I expressed, he’d put me in contact with the relevant people. It was fantastic.”

After several weeks of discussion, Chris and his Office of Water colleagues had developed a project he could complete in the 120 hours of required practicum time: Drafting a fact sheet about climate change’s impact on harmful algal blooms and compiling statistics on algal toxins in freshwater. As climate change alters conditions in oceans and bodies of fresh water, naturally occurring algae can multiply rapidly and cause “blooms” that block sunlight and deplete oxygen needed by other aquatic organisms. Some forms of algae release toxins that can harm humans and animals.

To produce the fact sheet on harmful algal blooms, Chris’s job was to review the scientific literature and summarize the issue in language accessible to the general public. “It’s challenging to take scientific language and translate it into something that’s both accurate and accessible,” Chris explains. “Communicating science is something we discuss a lot in class, and it was great to have a real-world example to work on.”

After Chris wrote the first draft of the fact sheet, he got feedback from colleagues, and a revised version was circulated for agency review. Several months after he completed his internship, he was alerted that the fact sheet had been posted on the EPA website. “It was great to see it online,” he says.

Another part of Chris’s internship involved collecting and analyzing data from 18 states that monitor freshwater bodies for cyanotoxins produced by algae. “I was participating in communications with people at state health departments regarding the data they were providing, and it was interesting to see how different health departments communicate with federal EPA,” says Chris. “Some were certainly more willing to participate than others.” In the end, he received nearly 100 data files, from which he created summary statistics. That information will help EPA staff understand the prevalence of certain cyanotoxins as they develop a health advisory.

Unexpected Opportunities
“One thing I wasn’t expecting, but that I really appreciated, was how much exposure I got to projects I wasn’t working on,” Chris says. “Ed was constantly inviting me to sit in on meetings, including meetings with top managers from different offices. It was great to hear discussions about priorities, planning, and budgetary issues, and it gave me a good perspective on the inner workings of a complex agency.”

One especially memorable process that Chris got to observe was the review of public comments submitted in response to a draft report about the impacts of climate change on water and guidelines for addressing those impacts. He describes it as an “eye-opening” experience. “It’s certainly a robust process. They read through all the comments and discussed them, grouping them together and considering how they’d respond to them.” Environmental Health Science and Policy MPH students learn in class about how regulatory agencies incorporate public feedback into regulations and guidelines, and seeing the process from inside the agency gave Chris a deeper insight into what kinds of comments the agency receives and how it addresses them.

Ohanion, who served as Chris’s practicum preceptor, also arranged for Chris to present his work to two head directors in the Office of Science and Technology. “I laid out my findings and had conversations with them about it. It was slightly intimidating, but a great experience,” Chris recalls. “They were very receptive, and appreciative of the work I’d done.”

Of his time at EPA, Chris says, “I’d love to return there. I left with a very positive picture of the agency and the type of things they’re doing. They’re scientists, they’re passionate about their work, and there are a lot of smart people there – it was great to be a part of that.”

Advice for MPH students
Chris’s experience holds some pointers for MPH students who are planning their practicum experiences. Starting the process early allows a student and his or her preceptor to consider different ideas for practicum projects that can contribute to the organization while providing a learning opportunity for the student. And if students want to intern with a federal agency, security requirements may lengthen the amount of time between application and start date.

Two things that Chris says helped him have a rewarding practicum experience were not needing a paid internship and having enough flexibility to continue interning well after his 120 hours were complete. “I had a hard time finding opportunities that were paid, so if you can afford to not be paid and are willing to do that, you’ll have more possibilities,” he advises. Chris also considers himself fortunate that he was able to keep working as a volunteer for several weeks after he completed his minimum practicum hours. “It was my choice to do it,” he explains. “I was enjoying the work I was doing, so I stayed. It allowed me to see a lot more of the inner workings of the agency.”

Chris also advises MPH students to make the most of the opportunities the practicum requirement affords. “I tried to get as much out of it as I could, make the best impression I could while I was there. It’s a great way to get experience working with an organization or agency that you’re interested in. I’m glad we have to do it.”