Meet EPA Scientist Betsy Smith, Ph.D.

EPA Scientist Betsy Smith, Ph.D.

Helping Communities Make Sustainable and Healthy Decisions

Dr. Betsy Smith is Associate National Program Director for Systems Analysis within the Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program. Prior to this position, she directed the Office of Research and Development's Regional Vulnerability Assessment (ReVA) program, which was the first of its kind. Her work has focused on new methods to analyze spatial data on multiple problems (land use change, climate change, invasive species, resource extraction, pollution) to allow decision-makers to prioritize actions needed to protect vulnerable resources.

  • Regional Vulnerability Assessment (ReVA) program

How does your science matter?

I work in EPA’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities research program. We’re creating applications that look at all aspects of a problem that a community might face—including  the costs and benefits of decisions—to  provide communities, individuals, and decision makers with something helpful and useful. These tools help people weigh the health, environmental, social, and economic impacts of decisions simultaneously.

One exciting tool we are working on is the EnviroAtlas. It’s an easy-to-use, map application that will be publicly available on the internet in the fall. Users will be able to use the tool to identify the environmental benefits they are getting from the environment where they live, such as clean air, clean water, and habitats for biodiversity. The information it provides will help users decide how to best use these resources and how they can be conserved for future generations.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be and what would you want to ask them?

I’ve have had the pleasure of working with many great, interesting scientists, so I have enjoyed many dinners over the years, but I think having dinner with someone like evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould would be fun. I think he could tell a good story.  Gould is known for making science accessible to a broad audience. He published many books, articles and essays and was often seen on television shows like PBS’ NOVA.  I might ask him what it was like being portrayed as a character on the Simpsons!

What do you like most about your research?

I work with some of the most amazing, smart, creative people! What I like most is that they seem to respect me for what I can contribute, which is really rewarding.  I also feel that what we are trying to do is really important and has the potential to make a difference.

Dr. Smith at work in her office.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?

It was probably junior year in college.  Before that I had planned to be an art major, but realized I’d probably be a starving artist so I starting taking some natural sciences classes. I realized they were really the most fun I’d had in college since I got to spend so much time outside.

Tell us about your background.

For undergraduate school I went to the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.  Sewanee was a great place to discover a love for ecology as it has a domain of over 10 thousand acres, much of it virgin forest.  I majored in Forestry, then went to the University of Tennessee for a Masters of Science in Biometrics.  After that I worked for 14 years for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), mostly doing research looking at air pollution effects on forests.  While at TVA I put together a proposal under the National Acid Deposition Assessment Program (NAPAP) to look at trends in growth for hardwoods across the SE and got funded.  I was able to turn this into a doctoral project and TVA supported my graduate work so I got my Ph.D. in Ecology while working full time for TVA.

If you were not a scientist, what would you be doing?

I might be teaching art. I continue to engage in a variety of art forms.

Any advice for students considering a career in science?

Try to get a multidisciplinary background and include some policy as well as science so they can see what is really needed to address some of our more pressing problems. I'd also recommend some spatial analysis training, as I think that is applicable in almost every field and is growing in application.