Jobs

What is it like to work at the EPA?

Elizabeth Stivison
Jan. 22, 2022

I’ve never met anyone more enthusiastic about their job than Muna Nahar is about her work at the Environmental Protection Agency. “The mission is just so great!” she told me. “The people are so focused on helping the public.”

I’ve been intrigued by what a scientist’s life in government is like, so I reached out to Nahar to learn about her job. Nahar has worked as a toxicologist at the EPA since earning her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2014. That means she’s worked through three presidencies. While things change with each administration, restructuring or emphasizing different aspects, she and her colleagues stay focused on the EPA’s goal — “To protect human health and the environment,” as stated on the agency's website.

Muna Nahar is a health assessor at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I’m synthesizing all the data to understand the general safety or hazard of a chemical," she said.

Nahar knew during her graduate studies that she didn’t want to stay in academia. “I saw people going down the academic route, and somewhere in my gut I knew that wasn’t my way,” she said. 

Her dissertation focused on the developmental toxicity of the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA. She attended toxicology conferences attended by many EPA employees. She said she was very curious about what they were doing: “I had working at the EPA in the back of my mind when I was a student.”

Because her Ph.D. work in toxicology aligned so well with the work going on at the agency, she said, the transition into government was relatively easy. The biggest change was that she wasn’t doing benchwork anymore.

“I haven’t picked up a single pipette in the last eight years,” she said, sounding almost surprised. Her job now consists of bigger-picture work: analyzing and understanding data collected by many other people, companies and organizations. “At first I thought I missed the lab, but actually, looking back on my Ph.D., I realize I always enjoyed reading papers and figuring out what it all means. And that’s what I‘m doing now as a regulatory toxicologist: I’m synthesizing all the data to understand the general safety or hazard of a chemical.”

This synthesis is different from what she did during her Ph.D. in one main way. Back then, she read papers to understand where her own research fit in and to figure out the path her research should take. Now she’s seeking to answer one essential question: Is there enough information to say that a chemical is safe?

To reach the conclusion, she and her team look through data — including peer-reviewed research, compilations of data and systematic reviews from agencies all around the U.S. and the world, and even proprietary data submitted by companies. They look at data for all relevant systems — such as cardiovascular, neurological and respiratory — and data for the life around us too, such aquatic and other wildlife. Often there is limited information about a chemical, so Nahar must use chemical modeling tools and experimental data from analogous or similar compounds to estimate how the chemical works. Then she and her colleagues discuss their findings and come to a conclusion.

She’s had a few different roles at the EPA. Her current job (the job she’s had for longest) is a part of the Safer Choice program. She describes the mission of the program this way: “If you’re going down the grocery aisle, you have so many products, and you're bombarded with all this messaging. Safer Choice is a trusted label that ensures ingredients in the product have been reviewed against strict safety criteria for both human health and the environment, so you don’t have to stress over reading the ingredient list."

Her work looks at the whole product instead of just one or two hot-button chemicals, such as BPA or phthalates, that get a lot of publicity. Her team evaluates all toxicological data for every ingredient to check whether it is safe for your family, pets, workers and the environment. They also require that products meet sustainable packaging and performance standards. If a product meets these stringent standards and criteria, her team can grant it the “Safer Choice” label.

Nahar said the best part of her job is how much she gets to learn, think and build upon her prior knowledge. She gets to use the molecular biology and genetic knowledge she learned as an undergrad working in a yeast genetics lab and toxicology knowledge from her Ph.D. studying the effects of BPA exposure. And she’s been able to acquire more skills, including the use of chemical modeling programs that EPA scientists have created.

“I really like that aspect of my job: It’s neuroscience, and cardiovascular, and aquatic toxicity. In my previous training, I was very focused on human health, and now I also get to know about other things, like fish and ecology. I’ve become more of a generalist,” she said.

Enjoy reading ASBMB Today?

Become a member to receive the print edition monthly and the digital edition weekly.

Learn more
Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

Related articles

Welcome to the lab
Andrey Andreev, Valerie Komatsu, Paula Almiron, Kasey Rose, Alexandria Hughes & Maurice Y. Lee
All the alt-ac jobs
Elizabeth Stivison
Lonely science
Swati Agrawal, Marilee Benore & Pamela Mertz
‘If I don’t, who will?’
Lea Vacca Michel & Desirée Forsythe

Featured jobs

from the ASBMB career center

Get the latest from ASBMB Today

Enter your email address, and we’ll send you a weekly email with recent articles, interviews and more.

Latest in Careers

Careers highlights or most popular articles

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities
Announcement

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities

May 22, 2022

Just added: Workshop series in June for educators about course-based undergraduate research experiences. Also, late-breaking abstracts for our mass spec meeting are now being accepted.

‘We're all a bunch of weirdos doing our stuff’
Jobs

‘We're all a bunch of weirdos doing our stuff’

May 20, 2022

An interview with Charles Sanders, a research associate at XBiotech.

Welcome to the lab
Life in the Lab

Welcome to the lab

May 15, 2022

Having a formal onboarding procedure for new lab members can lead to a happier and more productive working environment.

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities
Announcement

Calendar of events, awards and opportunities

May 15, 2022

Happening this week: Abstracts due for mass spec meeting, webinars on NSF GRFP and CAREER funding, ASCB event about quantitative cell biology, and workshops on membrane protein design and building your personal brand.

All the alt-ac jobs
Jobs

All the alt-ac jobs

May 13, 2022

Our career columnist compiled a smorgasbord of places that need scientists on their staffs.

Pell Grants fall far short of original goal to make college more affordable
Education

Pell Grants fall far short of original goal to make college more affordable

May 10, 2022

When they were created in 1973, they covered 80% of expenses at public institutions. Today they cover less than 30%.