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50 Years of Earth Day with EPA Researchers

Published April 20, 2020

It’s no coincidence that EPA shares its 50th anniversary with Earth Day. Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day to show the country’s political leadership that there was broad public support for the environmental movement.

On April 22,1970, twenty million Americans across the country took to the streets to demonstrate their desire for a healthy environment. It worked--in December 1970, Congress authorized the creation of a new federal agency to tackle environmental issues, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Earth Day is now celebrated by one billion people in over 190 countries around the world. After 50 years of environmental progress, our researchers continue to find new ways to protect the environment and the American people.

Need some Earth Day inspiration? Read about what made these EPAers dedicate their careers to protecting the environment and how they are safely celebrating Earth Day this year.


Jennifer and her husband on a hike in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Jennifer and her husband on a hike in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting EPA Science Advisor

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I’ve always been interested in science and the outdoors. Originally, I was fascinated by marine science. I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1960s and that’s when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Going into Cleveland at that time, the steel mills were in full production and streetlights would turn on at noon due to all the smoke, even with the sun out. I also read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson at a young age, which was another strong influence on my decision to work in environmental science and protection.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

My favorite Earth Day memory was a field trip my 6th grade science class took to a wastewater treatment plant. I always had a fascination with water and seeing the interaction of human waste, water treatment, and the environment really connected the concept of environmental systems for me. Field trips like that are great ways to teach the next generation about the need for environmental work and protection.

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

For many years, my Earth Day celebrations have focused on encouraging ORD staff to participate in local and Agency activities. Every ORD location holds different events and I take pride in how our staff value environmental protection and celebrate Earth Day. This year’s Earth Day events may have been impacted by Coronavirus, but I do still plan to spend some time cleaning up my neighborhood while safely keeping my distance from my neighbors.

Additionally, my family maintains an annual butterfly garden. Even though my allergies might disagree, we enjoy doing our part to support pollinator health.

Walter Berry in a canoe on his way to count sparrows on the salt marsh.Walter Berry in a canoe on his way to count sparrows on the salt marsh.Walter Berry, Research Biologist

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was nine years old, after reading a book by Jacques Cousteau. Working to protect the ocean and what lives in it followed naturally. I have been fortunate to be able to do just that for a living for over 40 years.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

My favorite Earth Day memory is of the first Earth Day cleanup we had at our local pond, with dozens of local middle schoolers and neighbors. We filled a town dump truck with shopping carts, tires of all sizes (from tricycles to tractors), and other junk. Each year thereafter we got less and less junk.

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

It looks like it will be just me and the dog this year, but there is a stretch of road near my house I have been dying to clean up. Hopefully I will get out into the kayak for a little fishing afterwards.

Mehdi Hazari playing soccer. Mehdi Hazari playing soccer. Mehdi Hazari, Research Physiologist

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I had the opportunity to visit many countries in the East, both when I was young and much later as an adult. It pained me to see the deteriorated state of the environment in those places; some of this was due to neglect and apathy, but some of it was because of the abject poverty of the people who lived there. I have always thought of our country as a positive example to others, as a leader in environmental protection and the betterment of people’s lives. Hence, I wanted to do my part, albeit in a small way, so that some of that good might make its way down to people who may not be as empowered in other parts of the world.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

My fondest memory of Earth Day is bringing my nine year-old daughter, now a college student, to EPA for the great activities that are arranged for them on the occasion. What stuck out was her jubilant greeting when I met her at the end of the day and the non-stop stories of all the amazing things she learned.

 How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

I will celebrate Earth Day this year by finally installing a composter in my yard and barrels to collect rainwater – my small part, I guess.

Hiking Mount Sanitas in Boulder on New Year’s Day this year with my family (though just my daughter is in the picture with me – she’s a pro at taking selfies).Hiking Mount Sanitas in Boulder on New Year’s Day this year with my family (though just my daughter is in the picture with me – she’s a pro at taking selfies).Britta Bierwagen, Branch Chief

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I’ve always loved to be outside, hiking, skiing, paddling, gardening, and participating in a long list of other activities. In college, I loved my biology and ecology classes, as well as the wonderful trips I took as part of the Outdoors Club! I felt that protecting and improving the environment was really important, and I wanted a career that would contribute to that.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

My daughter’s Girl Scout troop participated in a stream cleanup event for Earth Day a few years ago. It was so wonderful to see so many girls helping to improve our stream environment. They had a fabulous time and were so proud of their accomplishment. They organized additional clean-up events on their own thereafter!

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

Originally, we were going to participate in a stream cleanup as a family as part of a paddling event. Unfortunately, those activities have been canceled. We may just head down to our local creek and pick up trash, keeping at least six feet apart from anyone else! It’s a challenging time for what are normally really fun group events.

Ingrid (center) with her favorite people in the entire world: Husband Jim, Sophia (age 11) and Tyler (age 6)Ingrid (center) with her favorite people in the entire world: Husband Jim, Sophia (age 11) and Tyler (age 6).Ingrid L. Druwe, Toxicologist

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

 I have always loved two things: science and people. I always knew I wanted a job that allowed me to do what I love because then it wouldn’t feel like “work”. When I learned early in my undergraduate career about the scientific work being done at EPA and the importance of the mission which closely aligns with my personal beliefs, I knew that was where I wanted to end up. Then I learned about EPA’s IRIS program and the incredibly talented people there. I knew that was who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it. I focused as many of my activities, academic and extracurricular, to align my skillset with the needs of the IRIS program.

The Earth has such an abundance and diversity of life and beauty. By spending time observing it and meditating on it, I have been able to gain important life lessons, which I have been able to instill in my own children and also share with others. The wisdom gained by observing the natural world has helped me to keep a calm mind and spirit during these unprecedented times while also allowing me to help and comfort my neighbors and friends. The environment is full of such wonder that I hold it as a privilege to work for the governmental agency whose duty is to protect it.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

Yes! The first year that my family and I moved to North Carolina after I completed my graduate degree. My daughter was four and had started preschool. I recruited another student friend of mine and we went to her preschool and led a class of 20 3- and 4-year-olds in a series of activities from making “Earth” Rice Krispies treats, to face painting, planting trees, and reading Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. To be able to share my love for what I do with my daughter and her class was something I’ll never forget and something I’ve since then been able to do with my son’s class when he got to preschool.

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

Well, this year Earth Day will be like no other since we are all working remotely and staying home, but I have planned to send our friends seeds for our “pizza garden” (our garden will grow toppings that we and our friends like to have on our pizza including homemade pizza sauce) that they can grow at their homes. Hopefully by the time these seeds are saplings they can come over and plant them in our garden. Our plan is to have a big pizza party after the harvest, because every day IS Earth Day! We will also be making Earth Day cookies and delivering them to our friends and neighbors (doorstep delivery only of course).

Amalia at Sycamore Creek in central Arizona during a flood in January 2017. This stream is one of the systems she studied for her dissertation research.Amalia at Sycamore Creek in central Arizona during a flood in January 2017. This stream is one of the systems she studied for her dissertation research.Amalia Handler, EPA Postdoctoral Fellow

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

A high school mentor told me, “The biggest things are done by the smallest organisms” while holding out a handful of soil. Learning about the complexity of soil and the many human activities that degrade it was one of my first windows into environmental science.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

While a graduate student, I attended local high school’s earth day celebration as an educator. One of the other booths at the festival had solar-powered mechanical cockroaches that would move while in direct sunlight. The school students (and I) couldn’t get enough of these mechanical roaches bouncing and crawling around the sidewalk. It was a great way to get everyone interested in the mechanics of solar power.

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

The Willamette River cleanup event I was planning to attend was rescheduled for later this summer. So, I am planning to spend Earth Day at home, perhaps gardening.

Stephen somewhere in the North Cascades of Washington.Stephen somewhere in the North Cascades of Washington.Stephen Pacella, Research Ecologist

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I grew up spending most of my free time outside mountain biking, climbing, sailing, and generally exploring the more remote corners of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It’s a beautiful part of the country, and these outdoor experiences instilled in me a deep appreciation and curiosity for our natural environment. This is also a region with a long history of industrial activity and resource extraction, and I think the need for balance between human progress and environmental protection felt especially obvious to me and the community I was a part of there. Like most, my path to becoming a scientist with the EPA was circuitous, but I have always been motivated by opportunities to explore the basic functioning of natural systems and apply the findings to outstanding challenges in science and management. I feel fortunate to have found a career that allows me to spend so much time thinking about and trying to understand the natural world around us, as well as our society’s impacts on this environment.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

I’m not sure I could name a favorite one, but last year our lab (the Pacific Coastal Ecology Branch in ORD) spent the day doing a beach cleanup at a popular state park and surf spot. I was expecting to find the usual local litter from the crowds it can see on weekends, but most of what we were cleaning up was plastic pollution deposited on the beach by ocean currents and mixed into the sand and wrack. Plastic pollution (especially microplastics) is something we all discuss quite a bit these days but seeing the extent of it that day reminded me of the often global nature of our environmental issues today, and the complexities of meeting these challenges at local scales.

 How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

This Earth Day will likely be much different than any I (or anyone else?) have had before with our stay-at-home order here in Oregon due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Right now, it is hard to ignore how dependent the health and stability of our society is on the natural environment around us, and how we manage that relationship. Even if I’m not able to get outside to celebrate, I think it will be a good time to both reflect on what our society has accomplished in the name of environmental protection, and refocus my own efforts on the environmental challenges we are likely to face in the future.

Last fall visiting the beautiful Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland. Lisandra and her husband spent a week exploring the area and taking in all the amazingness of nature.Last fall visiting the beautiful Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland. Lisandra and her husband spent a week exploring the area and taking in all the amazingness of nature.Lisandra SD Trine, Chemist, Pathways Intern

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I grew up in Puerto Rico, in the middle of the island and at high elevation. From our property you could see the ocean (North and East coast of Puerto Rico) and our National Forest, El Yunque. I spent many hours with my grandmother sitting on the balcony, in awe of the views and how amazing our Earth is. And I just knew I needed to work on something or somewhere where I could help protect those views, close and far.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

In college I was a member of the American Chemical Society Student Chapter in Puerto Rico. For three years we hosted the ‘Festival de Quimica’ (Chemistry Festival) at El Paseo la Princesa in San Juan. Hundreds of participants had the chance to explore how chemistry and other sciences are present in our lives. I remember every festival very fondly, with joy and hope for our environment and future scientists.

 How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

Since 2014, my husband and I have planted a new fruit tree in our yard for Earth Day. For this year we picked 2 gooseberry plants. We also enjoy watching Disneynature movie releases for Earth Day every year. For 2020, they are releasing the film called Elephant.

Mike Slimak on La Rive GaucheMike Slimak on La Rive Gauche. Michael Slimak, Director, Sustainable & Healthy Communities Research Program, EPA/ORD

What inspired you to work to protect the environment? 

My father and maternal grandfather taught me about the natural sciences and the importance of “listening and observing” nature.  Also, the writings and ethos of Aldo Leopold.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

I was teaching high school biology on April 22, 1970 (the first Earth day) when I took my AP Biology class to the local stream to look for aquatic insects and to remove debris (e.g., tires, trash, etc).

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year? 

The past few years I’ve participated in a spring warbler bird count. With the pandemic, my excursions in the Wake Forest, NC, area may be somewhat limited.   

Valerie doing what she loves most: communicating with rocks! Valerie doing what she loves most: communicating with rocks! Valerie Cover Garcia, Associate Director, Air Monitoring and Characterization Division

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I have a passion for rocks—the very skin of the Earth! This passion has led me to a deep connection with nature and a desire to protect it.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory? 

I love the fact that we pause to reach out to children on Earth Day. 18 years ago (2002), my daughter entered an Earth Day poster competition with a picture of a turtle swimming across Earth with a caption of “Abuse It…And Lose It”.  She has never lost her enthusiasm for protecting the Earth and is passing this love on through teaching!

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year? 

You’ll find me safely picking up trash along my favorite streams and rivers! I gain such a sense of satisfaction from this simple act. 

Kyle contemplates an Earth Day alone in nature…Kyle contemplates an Earth Day alone in nature…Kyle Buck, Human Geographer

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I have a research background and interest in human health risks, and the environment plays a huge role in this. I really enjoy trying to connect the health of the natural environment to the human/social environment.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

Mine is definitely from my first Earth Day at EPA’s Gulf Ecosystem Measurement and Modeling Division. We had not done an event in many years and our outreach committee managed to bring it back. It was amazing! So many people from the community came out and had some great memories of past events. It was really special to have a new generation of kids coming to the island and seeing their excitement as they learned about the EPA mission and what we do.

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

My goal is to spend the day entirely outdoors. There aren’t many options for celebration right now, unfortunately. Maybe I’ll have some cake, too…if I can find any flour at the store.

Rebecca taking in the view with her older brother somewhere in the Rocky Mountains sometime around Earth Day in the 1980s.  Growing up in Colorado, she spent a lot of quality family time in the station wagon going to state and national parks in the westerRebecca taking in the view with her older brother somewhere in the Rocky Mountains sometime around Earth Day in the 1980s.  Growing up in Colorado, she spent a lot of quality family time in the station wagon going to state and national parks in the western U.S. Rebecca Dodder, Supervisory Physical Scientist/Branch Chief

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?  

As a scientist, I was always drawn to areas of work where we could apply scientific knowledge to advance the public good. It was during graduate school, while working on a project on air quality in Mexico City, that I really began to understand how protecting the planet and improving environmental quality could so directly impact people’s quality of life on a daily basis.  

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory? 

I don’t know if I have a particular Earth Day memory.  But, Earth Day falls around both my birthday and my wedding anniversary.  To me, this time of year is generally a feeling of hope and renewal.

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?  

As a family, we’re still looking for unique, socially-distanced ways to celebrate the day.  Any ideas are welcome!  We try to embody Earth Day in what we do every day: picking up trash when we go on family hikes, being efficient in our energy use in the home and when driving/travelling, and choosing environment- and conservation-oriented non-profits to support.   

Melissa McCulloughMelissa McCullough. Melissa McCullough, Associate National Program Director, SHC

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

 I love it, and it has problems that are solvable.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

At the 20th Earth Day, I sang with a group of EPA friends (John Bachmann’s Luna Tunes) at the celebration on the National Mall in Washington DC.

 How will you celebrate Earth Day this year? 

I’m giving a sustainability talk via Skype to BlueCross BlueShield. I am also trying to line up a speaker for our Sierra Club meeting about the Durham BioBlitz, and how to use iNaturalist.

Bruce at Magnetic Island on the Great Barrier ReefBruce at Magnetic Island on the Great Barrier Reef.Bruce Rodan, Associate Director for Science

 What inspired you to work to protect the environment?  

I feel very fortunate to work for the EPA – I have a professional career solving environmental problems that I would otherwise pursue as a volunteer.

I wasn’t always this mission-oriented. I had a great start in life roaming free on the river banks – sort of a Huckleberry Finn on the edge of the Outback – and holidaying on golden tropical beaches with rock pools filled with colorful fish (and the odd sea snake).

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory? 

My first Earth Day memory was when I was a medical student watching the documentary “Bloody Ivory.” This was quite a personal epiphany, with the destruction and injustice awakening my lifetime career path.

I have since become increasingly aware of the opportunity for life, love, and beauty all around and in all we do, from the big to the small, from the global to our own backyards.

I started through volunteer work on tropical rainforest conservation, which ultimately introduced me to some amazing people in the Federal government who share this passion, and who guide the power of this great country for the betterment of humanity.

Now, while on COVID-19 home-stay, it’s a little less grandiose and I go for exercise walks in the nearby park, playing I-Spy with my wife to find and retrieve pieces of trash. If you see the trash, the other has to pick it up. Yes, much fun can be had on cliff edges … followed by hand sanitizer.

 How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?  

For this Earth Day, I will plant more native pollinator habitat to create a “zoo in my own backyard.” I have succeeded in luring bluebirds to nest, the next big challenge being to recruit an endangered rusty-patch bumblebee to the yard.

Sarah Mazur Sarah Mazur at Glacier National Park. Sarah Mazur, Associate National Program Director for the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

In 8th grade, I had an amazing biology teacher whose passion for science was infectious. As I learned more, I realized the inextricable link between humans and the world around us, how humans have influenced nature over time, and the importance of viewing ourselves as part of that broader system. I really feel driven to protect and restore the environment, help find solutions to prevent further damage, and demonstrate that what’s good for the environment is also good for people. 

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

I don’t know about a favorite, but a few years ago, my husband and I went to Cape May, NJ for a long weekend at a B&B. We stumbled upon a small local vegan restaurant that had a special Earth Day menu and live music. Afterwards, we took a long walk on the beach, watched the sunset, and appreciated the natural beauty around us. 

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?  

I will likely take a long walk with my family along a local trail, spend time outside in our yard, and focus on appreciating the beauty around us. Spending time outdoors in nature has definitely helped keep me grounded as I adjust to life in the time of COVID-19.

Tammy with Walter Boynton collecting sediment cores to assess the health of the Chesapeake Bay.Tammy with Walter Boynton collecting sediment cores to assess the health of the Chesapeake Bay.Tammy Newcomer-Johnson, Ecologist

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

As a child, I loved to play outside and climb trees and look for salamanders in our local stream with my brother and our golden retriever. I still find a glimpse of a white-tailed deer or a woodpecker to be mesmerizing. Looking for spring blooms is one of my favorite scavenger hunts. I care deeply about the environment for the sake of the plants and animals. And I’m inspired to work to protect the environment because I think all people should have access to clean air, safe water, and beautiful natural areas to inspire them.

Do you have a favorite Earth Day memory?

When I was an undergraduate student, I submitted my first grant application to plant 300 native trees on UMBC’s campus on Earth Day. Even though my grant application was not selected, I had a team of mentors who told me not to give up. We found local sources to sponsor the cost of the trees, shovels, gloves, buckets, and T-shirts for the volunteers. It took some grit to organize the logistics, but it was so rewarding when over a hundred volunteers showed up to plant the trees! Since then, I have enjoyed going back to the site every few years to see how the trees have grown. 

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

I had planned to participate in a large Earth Day event with the EPA lab in Cincinnati. However, due to the pandemic, I’ll be home. I plan to walk around the neighborhood with my 1-year-old son Nathan and look at the street trees that are blooming. I hope to inspire his sense of wonder.

Michael DumelleMichael Dumelle.Michael Dumelle, Mathematical Statistician

What inspired you to work to protect the environment?

I want to do all I can to protect the only Earth we have.

What is your favorite Earth Day memory?

Picking up trash at a local beach with my father

How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?

Cleaning up some backyard fruit trees.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the employees alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.