Meet EPA Microbiologist Eric Villegas, Ph.D.
Keeping Drinking Water Safe
Eric Villegas, Ph.D. is a supervisory research microbiologist in EPA's Office of Research and Development. He is currently the Branch Chief of the Biological Methods Branch, Watershed and Ecosystems Devision, Center for Environmental Measurement and Modeling. His recent work focuses on next generation technology to better understand risks associated with waterborne microbes.
How does your science matter?
My research primarily focuses on microbial contaminants (from parasites to viruses) in water. We're working to determine the levels of these pathogens as they relate to human exposure risks. In order to provide that data, we have to develop sensitive and innovative tools that enable us to detect microbial contamination in our water supplies. The tools we have developed now allow us to better assess the risks associated to these pathogens and provide insights on how to mitigate current and emerging issues.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you like to ask them about?
My choice would be the two "Steves" who started Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. I'd like to ask them about their inspirations and the driving forces behind their development of the Apple computer. Do they have any words of wisdom for the next generation scientists and engineers?
When did you first know you wanted to pursue science as a career?
When I was in fifth grade, my parents gave me a children's chemistry set. It was one of those DIY kits with which you made stuff like perfumes or grow salt crystals. That was the first time I remember doing science for fun. Later the same year, I also made a light dimmer out of a toothpaste cap, some copper wire, iron nails, a battery, and a light bulb. So I guess the fifth grade was a pretty big year for me.
Tell us about your background.
I did my undergraduate studies at California State Northridge where I got a degree in Biology with an emphasis in Cellular and Molecular Biology. I went on to get a Ph.D. in Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine where I worked on understanding immune responses to parasitic infections. After that, I did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Division of Immunology and Pathogenesis at University of California Berkeley, to continue my work on understanding host regulatory factors modulating resistance to infection.
What do you like most about your research?
My research is a hybrid between basic, biomedical, and applied research. One part provides the necessary scientific data that supports the Agency's mission, which is to protect human health. The other part addresses fundamental questions related to understanding host-pathogen interaction.
Working here makes me feel like I'm making a difference.
If you were not a scientist, what do you think you would be doing?
I would have been a photographer or a medical illustrator. I was close to graduating with a double major in Fine Arts and Biology as an undergraduate, but then an opportunity to volunteer to work in a research lab isolating mitochondrial DNA from bacteria came up, which really pushed me to pursue research.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
My wife is also a scientist so you can imagine the dinner conversations we have at home and with our children! Science is really a lifestyle. It’s not easy and you can’t just do it forty hours a week. You need passion, patience, and perseverance because some projects can take years and you don’t even know if they’ll work or not.
- About the Center for Environmental Measurement and Modeling (CEMM)
- Development of Next-Generation DNA Sequencing Techniques to Improve and Advance Environmental Monitoring and Bioassessment
- Basic Information about Pathogens and Indicators in Drinking Water
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.