Meet EPA Engineer Darren Lytle, Ph.D.
Keeping Drinking Water Safe
Dr. Darren A. Lytle is an environmental engineer and acting branch chief. Since beginning work at EPA in 1991, Darren’s primary goal has been to research the quality of drinking water. Over the years, he has investigated and published works on drinking water systems, focusing on distribution system corrosion control and water quality; ; filtration; EPA Contaminant Candidate List contaminant removal studies; and iron and arsenic removal.
How does your science matter?
I’ve done drinking water research as an engineer in the areas of corrosion, microbial contaminants, distribution issues, and inorganic contaminants. My focus has largely been on particulates, microbial pathogens, distribution system issues, and inorganic contaminants.
I know every day that I make a difference. I get phone calls and emails on a daily basis from states, regions, and homeowners asking me about research we have done or problems they are having with drinking water. I can see direct impacts of our work by looking at water treatment facilities that have made changes based upon our recommendations and those changes have improved the way they provide clean water to the public. I know there are communities and people in the United States that have better water supplies and drinking water because of the work we have done and the assistance we have provided.
Tell us more about the Drinking Water Management Branch, where you work.
My team is focused on improving, optimizing, or developing treatment technologies for removing all kinds of contaminants from drinking water. Those contaminants can be particulates, in the form of silts and clays that you might have in a river, to inorganic contaminants like arsenic. We also focus on drinking water distribution system issues, such as the corrosion of lead and copper pipes in your home. We also deal with the organic contaminants such as volatile organic compounds and disinfection byproducts. We also work closely with others in the Agency to address drinking water issues as well.
Much of our preliminary work takes place at EPA facilities where we perform bench and pilot scale studies. Eventually, the research carries over to different locations all over the country. The location of our work depends on the contaminants we are working on and the interests of the states. We work closely with state, regional and community partners. Sometimes states or communities will come to us. If it’s a problem that’s widespread throughout the region, there might be an opportunity to do some evaluation, testing, or monitoring.
What do you like most about your research?
I like the hands-on and the practical aspects of our research. We are discovering and doing new things all the time. It’s exciting when you can say that some of the newest, most important discoveries in the water area are happening here. People look to us for recommendations and advice to solve real problems. I know we’re providing information that ultimately is going to end up protecting public health.
When did you first know you wanted to be an engineer?
I first knew I wanted to be an engineer when I graduated from high school. My dad was an engineer, and I had always enjoyed math and science, and liked solving problems. Engineering is a blend of them, so that’s what got me started in it. I went the civil environmental engineering route, because I wanted to avoid being stuck behind a desk and computer all the time. I thought that civil engineering would give me a chance to spend more time in the field and doing a lot of hands on work.
Tell us about your background.
I got my B.S. in civil Engineering at the University of Akron. I got my master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati in Environmental Engineering, and then my Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois. I have been working in the drinking water research group since I started 30 years ago.
Any advice for students considering a career in science or engineering?
I have always enjoyed mentoring students. I’m a pretty strong believer that it’s important to go on to get further education and an advanced degree. The other thing I tell students is don’t just settle for a job. Use your degree to make a difference. Find an area that gets you enthusiastic about what you are doing and really look at how you can make a difference to solve real problems. You have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and do it.
What do you think the biggest scientific challenge is facing us in the next 20/50/100 years?
In the water area, it has to be the overall question of growing population and water shortages. That’s a big issue in the western United States. How do we deal with shortages of water and associated water quality degradation where populations are growing, and environmental conditions are changing? Can we desalinate and treat at a reasonable cost? Lastly, our aging water infrastructure must be addressed. As it becomes less of it someplaces, the associated degradation of water quality.
How did your time in college prepare you for your current role?
At the University of Akron, I had two environmental engineering professors who got me interested in environmental engineering. When I went into civil engineering, I didn’t know what discipline I wanted to focus on until I met them. They really spent time with us students talking about drinking water and wastewater treatment and bringing out a lot of practical applications. It helped prepare me for the types of problems and issues we deal with at EPA.
In graduate school, working in student groups on projects under the guidance of a professor really helped prepare me for working in team environments. The way our research functions is similar to the academic model.
Where do you see drinking water going? Are we prepared to tackle the challenges or will we face more issues?
In the shorter term, we will be dealing with distribution systems and related water quality issues. Events such as Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey have resulted in renewed attention to lead corrosion. The Agency is expected to finalize revisions to the new Lead and Copper rule later this year. Water utilities will be required to look at their lead reduction strategies more closely.
The second issue is water quality in buildings. When water leaves the water treatment facility, it travels to buildings where it can stay for a long time, degrading the water quality. In response, buildings are putting in their own treatment facilities, essentially making them a public water supply, which then raises all kinds of water quality and management questions.
Lastly, there are a number of emerging contaminants such as PFAS and PFOA compounds. We are going to need to continue to develop our methodologies for measuring these contaminants, and treatment approaches for removing them from drinking water.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.