Practicum Profile: Nicholas Porter Studies Plastics in Water at the EPA

Acting on a strong interest in connecting science to policy and the suggestion of Associate Professor Peter LaPuma, the EOH practice experience director, Environmental Health Science and Policy MPH Student Nicholas Porter contacted Robert Fegley in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development about an internship.  Porter was lucky enough to be offered his unpaid internship—known as a practicum at GW—based on that initial contact.  His experience at the EPA office just a few Metro stops away from GW’s campus enabled him to learn about many of the agency’s projects around the nation.

Porter was initially slated to review available information on copper and plastics in water, but he narrowed his focus and assisted in analyzing relevant information for a review paper that highlighted the needs in research and collaboration among government agencies on the issue of plastics in oceans and freshwater.  Porter explains, “We were interested in reviewing the extent to which plastics have contaminated our surface waters and what this could mean for human health in the future, as well as thinking about how different federal agencies could work together to tackle this issue.” 

Practicum Enhances Knowledge of Plastics and Federal Agencies

Porter, who holds a BS in Biology from Florida State University in Tallahassee, was tasked with reviewing scientific literature for information relating to the amount of plastics in water and human health effects of these plastics. Elaborating on the work, Porter says, “I paid attention to literature that talked about if other pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants, can actually be present on these plastics in the water.  I also looked at how these plastics persist for extremely long periods of time in the environment and how they can be broken down into 'micro' plastics from environmental factors, such as UV radiation from the sun.  Plastics can be found in surface waters all over the planet, it’s truly amazing how much we have contributed to this issue.  It was really interesting to learn that 'micro beads' in facial cleansers and soap can actually contribute to this micro plastic problem, entering into marine and freshwater systems.  I also looked at literature on possible accumulation of chemicals from plastics in seafood and how this may pose a threat to human health through consumption of these organisms, as well as possible threats to drinking water sources.  There are many uncertainties surrounding this issue, but it’s important to investigate these potential human health burdens stemming from plastic contamination of our waters.” 

Unfortunately, Porter was unable to see the paper to completion by the end of his practicum. However, he acquired valuable experience in analyzing scientific literature and government papers on technical issues related to environmental health and its policies.  Additionally, he gained a profound understanding of how a topic, like plastic pollution in water, can cut across federal agencies.  For example, NOAA’s marine debris program was also interested in this plastic pollution issue.  

In addition to earnest research opportunities, Porter’s internship allowed him to attend EPA meetings on a spectrum of topics.  “I attended meetings on pesticide use and regulation, water quality, various scientific assessments and hydraulic fracturing.  The meetings were all very interesting. A discussion of the chemicals that EPA is planning to focus on regarding human health and exposures was especially interesting,” says Porter.

Porter was impressed to learn just how much goes on at the EPA.  With the ability to attend multiple full-staff meetings for the Office of Research and Development, Porter was able to listen in on what EPA offices all over the country were doing to protect the environment and public health.  “I met many great scientists and decision makers and saw the passion that they have for their respective jobs at the EPA,” he explains.

Lessons Learned on Process

Porter’s reports of the EPA, its work and his experience there are very favorable. That said, he offers a few tips for those planning to intern with a federal agency:

  • Start the application process as soon as possible. Getting a late start may limit one’s ability to gain access to offices and computers in a timely manner.
  • Plan to complete a lot of paperwork.
  • Expect restrictions. Volunteers at the EPA must acquire a badge to access the Ronald Reagan Building, the site of Porter’s practicum in DC. The practicum was limited to the end date specified at the start of the practicum and could not be extended.
  • Try to learn the lingo. There are many, many acronyms used in the government.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open and make sure to talk to people at the practicum. 

Elaborating on his last point, Porter says, “By simply making conversation with a few colleagues, I was able to attend a town-hall-style meeting led by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and other top level EPA officials. Being social and making a point to introduce yourself to people you are working with is important.” 

A Worthwhile Internship That May Not Fit Every Student

Reflecting on his internship, Porter believes that although it was rewarding, the internship may not be right for students who need a paid position or a preceptor willing to micromanage them.  Porter reports that his preceptor, Robert Fegley, Chief of ORD’s Program Support Staff, was “extremely busy and wasn't there to check over what I was reviewing every second.  However, he was a great guide for my meetings around EPA.  He made sure to brief me as best he could before each meeting and helped me find interesting topics to work on, including the plastics issue. He always made sure I was getting what I needed from this practicum, which was practical public health experience that I was interested in.”

Porter says, “The internship was a great introduction to working for a federal agency and its day-to-day work flow.  I experienced the great level of bureaucracy in these agencies.  There are layers and layers of offices and departments that make up the EPA. Learning them all was something I had to work on each time I went in.  As complicated as it was, I will say that everyone there seemed to be hardworking and really love their job.  Many people had been there for years and years and still enjoyed it.  One co-worker had been there since a few months after the EPA was created by Richard Nixon in 1970.”

Porter recommends this practicum experience to anyone who is interested in learning more about how science and policy come together to influence the decisions that are made regarding environmental public health at the national level.