Meet EPA Chemist Mark Strynar, Ph.D.
Supporting Risk Assessments to Protect Public Health
Dr. Mark Strynar is a Physical Scientist in EPA's Office of Research and Development. His research interests include developing methods to identify and measure per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS) and other xenobiotic compounds (chemicals found in organisms that are not normally expected to be present) in biological and environmental media. He does this using high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) and non-targeted analysis (NTA) applications. This allows for the discovery of novel compounds to direct future studies.
When not at work, he enjoys spending time with his family and volunteering at his local church and various community programs. He is also an avid hunter, woodworker and welder who spends countless hours in his workshop creating furniture, contraptions, sawdust, and metal filings.
How does your science matter?
For the past eighteen years or so, I've focused on per- and polyfluorinated fluorinated compounds (PFAS) in my work. PFAS are chemical compounds used to make many products resistant to stains, water, or non-stick. Most people would recognize them as the compounds that keep food from sticking to pans or stains from ruining carpet.
Unfortunately, the same properties that make PFAS useful in products such as kitchenware and fabric also make them highly resistant to degradation, which means they stay in our environment for a long time after we are done using them. We have found that PFAS are also widely dispersed in human beings. Compounding this issue is as global regulatory pressure for some PFAS has occurred (e.g. PFOS and PFOA) alternative PFAS have been developed to fill their place. These chemicals however are often unknown to analytical chemists and need to be discovered in water, soil, air before action is taken.
My job is trying to figure out the PFAS found in the environment and different ways that PFAS get into your body. Each avenue of exposure: water, fish, air, food, house dust, etc., requires a different way ("analytical method") for us to measure for PFAS and other chemicals of interest.
My research supports human risk assessment studies. It matters because if PFAS exposure levels are too high we can help people act. For example, in Fayetteville, NC we found novel PFAS (e.g. GenX) in the Cape Fear river being emitted by a fluorochemical manufacturer. These PFAS made their way into downstream drinking water supplies. Working with state officials we helped to monitor and support corrective actions to curb these PFAS being emitted.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?
I would say two people Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie. Louis Pasteur was one of the first to do a lot of microbial work and discover that the root causes of many diseases are biologically based in microorganisms. I would like to ask him what made him begin to suspect that microbes are the root cause of diseases. Marie Curie was a pioneer in the discovery polonium and radium and did other pioneering research on radioactivity. My Ph.D. work involved a lot of radioactive tracer studies. However, my questions to her would be about her being the first woman to win the Nobel prize, and becoming a professor at the University of Paris in the early 1900’s. The sciences then were a very male dominated profession. Having watched the movie “Radioactive” about her life, I am sure she would have many good stories to tell. She was not only a pioneer in science, she was a pioneer for women in science.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue science as a career?
I have always been intrigued with figuring out he way things work. From a very young age I would dismantle things to try and see how they were put together and how they worked. Much to my dad’s chagrin, as a paper boy with first dibs on Saturday morning trash, I would bring home items people threw out that didn’t work. I hauled countless bicycles, lawnmowers and other stuff home and would try to fix them. In doing so I would either fix the broken item, or even more interesting to me, understand how the item was put together and how it works. That desire to understand the why and how has never left me and is the basis for why I went into the sciences. If thought of enough, and attacked from many different angles, there are no problems we can’t fix or at least understand how things work. Science is the solving of a never-ending series of problems and puzzles.
Tell us about your background.
I received my Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Rhode Island where I studied Natural Resource Sciences with a focus in Soil Science. I went to Texas A&M University for my master’s degree and The Pennsylvania State University for my Ph.D., which were both in soil science. My dissertation was on figuring out how xenobiotic compounds (manmade chemicals) interact with humic material in soil.
How did you get started at EPA?
I got started here as a post-doctoral fellow in 2002. At the time, most of the national labs had openings for four-year appointments. I came in under that program and it turned into a permanent position.
What do you like most about your research?
Every day is different. Here at EPA, we have a mission statement that is something you can get behind and fully embrace. I can't say many of my friends work for a company with the goal of protecting human lives and the environment. It's pretty lofty.
If you were not a scientist, what do you think you would be doing?
I would likely be an inventor. Minus the heavy mathematics, I have an engineering and inventing type mind. If I wasn't doing that, I would be a custom woodworker. That is my hobby, which I really enjoy and I'm pretty good at it.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
Do an internship. As an undergraduate, I did an unpaid internship with the United States Department of Agriculture. An internship shows you what kind of work a person does on a daily basis and helps you see if that's something you're interested in doing. Most companies and organizations are willing to take anyone on who will work for free. A student can find out if it's something they want to do for the rest of his or her life. That knowledge is invaluable.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.