Meet EPA Environmental Engineer Briana Niblick, Ph.D.
As an environmental engineer in the Land Remediation and Technology Division of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Dr. Briana Niblick develops and applies new methods and tools in the area of life cycle assessment. Some of her previous work includes compiling end-of-life inventory data for construction and demolition materials and tracking these resource streams across the United States. Dr. Niblick currently co-leads life-cycle impact assessment research, for which she received an EPA Science Achievement Award in 2020.
Tell us about your background.
I am the third generation of my family to be raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Growing up in a historic city gave me immediate access to local narratives of United States history and shaped my desire to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
I went to Lafayette College for undergraduate studies and double majored in Civil and Environmental Engineering and German. After graduating from Lafayette in 2006, I volunteered with AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Civic House, where I worked to introduce first-year students to concepts of civic engagement. The following year, I received a Fulbright Scholarship to Austria, where I designed and implemented sustainability metrics for a European Union Framework project involving ecological sanitation in East Africa. Through this project, I had the opportunity to learn from technical experts and local government officials in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.
I returned to the U.S. in 2008 and began my graduate studies in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. I completed my Masters and Ph.D. as part of a program called the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), which is an interdisciplinary National Science Foundation fellowship that pairs U.S. graduate students with regional or international programs for coordinated research training and career development. As part of the IGERT program, I spent six months as a visiting scholar at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in Brazil. For me, engineering and intercultural experience have always gone hand-in-hand.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I had some extraordinary teachers who encouraged me to pursue science, long before I had any idea what a scientific career actually looked like. The first time that I knew for myself that I not only wanted to be an engineer, but that I also wanted to pursue sustainability research, was midway through college. I was leading the Water Quality team in Lafayette College’s Engineers Without Borders group and we were helping several communities in the Yoro region of Honduras with small-scale water infrastructure projects. During this time, I had my first encounter with life cycle assessment, and more specifically, with life cycle management. When you enjoy the work you do, it no longer seems like work and becomes an integrated part of your life. This was definitely the case for me. Our EWB team went on to win an EPA P3-People, Prosperity and the Planet Grant for this sustainability and service-learning work.
How does your science matter?
Life cycle assessment is an internationally standardized method used to calculate potential environmental impacts across all phases of a product or service, from the extraction of natural resources through material processing and manufacture, through the use phase and finally disposal or recycling. The real power of LCA is to be able to translate the sum of a system’s material and energy flows into a comprehensive set of potential environmental impacts. LCA matters because it provides a systems-based view of everyday activities. Life-cycle information empowers EPA's clients and end users to make data-informed decisions for the common good of the environment, economy, and society.
What do you like most about your research?
One of the most fulfilling aspects of doing research at EPA is the ability to contribute to scientific efforts at multiple levels of government and then see that science being used to benefit communities on the ground. It all comes together!
I also have a unique opportunity at EPA to serve as a Special Emphasis Program Manager (SEPM). Created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, SEPMs advise management on common and emerging issues central to creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce. I serve as a SEPM in Cincinnati for the LGBTQ+ Special Emphasis Program (SEP). As of November 2020, I also serve as the Chair for EPA’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council, which is the governing body where all of the LGBTQ+ SEPMs from EPA locations across the country come together and collaborate on issues important to the entire Agency.
Creating a workplace, neighborhood, and nation where LGBTQ+ people can thrive is an environmental justice issue, as it tends to be marginalized communities who are statistically most impacted by environmental pollution and resource scarcity. Times are changing and it’s exciting to be part of that change.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist. I would listen to his stories. Many of his published accounts highlight his ability to gather the fundamental details of a situation and then interpret what he’s seeing versus what he thinks he knows.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
I would likely be working in international education. Studying German all through school and international engineering in college provided me with opportunities to explore the world and learn from people, cultures, and systems of knowledge quite different than my own. I would work to make such global cultural opportunities accessible to all students.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
The instant ability to speak and sign every language fluently would be amazing. In the meantime, I’ll appreciate the effort and joy of learning languages manually.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
Take all the math and science courses you can. Don’t skip statistics. Seek out mentors, regardless of their area of expertise. Ask deep questions and spend time writing for yourself. Try new experiences as early as possible.
What do you think the coolest scientific discovery was and why?
Our ability to go into space and carry out experiments on the international space station has expanded what we imagine to be possible. These experiments advance our science here on earth while also sparking creative solutions to existing problems.
What's the coolest day you’ve ever had at work?
In September 2017, I had my first opportunity to represent EPA on an international level at the biennial Life Cycle Management (LCM) Conference in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. LCM is the largest life-cycle conference in the world and participants were very curious about EPA research. We’ve always been told that EPA is known as one of the premier scientific institutions in the world. In Luxembourg, I really felt it.
Describe any steps you take in your daily life to protect the environment.
I have been reducing my plastic consumption, given the harmful end-of-life effects of non-biodegradable plastics on land and in the ocean. When I do need to use a plastic product, I check the number and make sure it is one that my local recycling facility can process or that I can return to the manufacturer. I find it helps to stay civically engaged while also up to date on the latest science: it’s an ever-evolving practice for me.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.