Meet EPA Researcher Mussie Beyene, Ph.D.
Mussie Beyene studies how wildland fires impact the water quality of streams in the western United States. His research shows that high severity burning of trees and soil can promote the export of water, sediments and contaminants into streams. One of the reasons he focused on the western states is because 65% of fresh water supply in the region originates from watersheds in forested areas, which, depending on weather conditions and human activities, can burn. Mussie’s research helps shape the EPA’s larger investigation into the impact of wildland fires on water resources.
Tell us about your background.
I am originally from Eritrea— a country in northeast Africa. I received my bachelor’s degree in civil & environmental engineering from University of Asmara (Eritrea). For three years, I worked as a water supply engineer in my home country. I then came to the U.S. for graduate school and earned my masters and doctoral degrees in water resources engineering from the University of Maine-Orono. I came to EPA in January 2018 as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) post-doctoral fellow.
How does your science matter?
A core mission of EPA is to maintain and restore aquatic ecosystems to protect human health, support economic and recreational activities, and provide a healthy habitat for fish, plants, and wildlife. My work can help the EPA achieve this mission in three ways. It clarifies the threats that wildland fires pose to the nation’s waters. It affords identification of western US water resources that are vulnerable to wildfire impacts. It offers scientific information that policymakers can use to mitigate the adverse effects of wildfires on the water quality of western US streams.
When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
I grew up watching shows about space adventure and time travel. I have always wanted to become a scientist.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be? What would you ask?
Alain de Botton. He is a British philosopher and author. I would like to hear his perspective on human behavior and emotions and why we do what we do.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
I would probably be working as a water resources engineer.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
The power to slow time so that I can do more things every day.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
A career in science can be rewarding in every sense: mentally, emotionally, financially, and socially. Moreover, one does not need to be a genius to study science-related subjects. Science graduates are also in demand in the US and elsewhere. So, to anyone interested in pursuing a science profession, DO IT.
What do you think the coolest scientific discovery was and why?
Computers and the Internet. They have drastically improved the way we learn and do research.
What do you think is our biggest scientific challenge in the next 20/50/100 years?
Water security. In many parts of the world, including the semi-arid western US, water sources are being depleted rapidly due to profligate water use, water pollution, climate change, and a large and growing human population. According to a 2020 US Bureau of Reclamation projection, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead could fall to critically low levels by 2025, jeopardizing water supply to about 40 million people from Wyoming to Arizona. A 2019 study conducted by the US Forestry service shows that US regions, notably California, the southwest, and central Rocky Mountain states, could see their freshwater supply reduced by a third within the next 50 years. Unless we find a sustainable way of using our water resources, water security will be an issue among states and countries for a long time.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.