Meet EPA Scientist Chris Clark, Ph.D.
EPA scientist Chris Clark, Ph.D. is working to assess the vulnerabilities we face from threats such as air pollution and climate change. Much of his work focuses on how we can adapt to build resilience in the face of these vulnerabilities.
Tell us about your background.
I am from the San Francisco Bay Area of California originally, but have lived all over the U.S., in Minnesota, Arizona, and now Washington DC. I grew up an avid outdoors person, spending a lot of time outside hiking, backpacking, skiing, and rock climbing. I always loved science but felt a strong desire to try and “make a difference” as they say. I got a double-major in physics and environmental sciences as an undergraduate at the University of California-Davis and spent a few years in the physics domain at the High Energy Physics Lab at Stanford University as an intern and later at Lockheed Martin as a satellite systems engineer. I loved the technical rigor of physics and engineering but got tired working with lasers in dark basements and testing esoteric concepts like Einstein’s Equivalence Principle.
My passion was for the outdoors and for better understanding the natural world, and for using the skills of mathematics and statistics to probe that world. I pursued a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in Ecology, where I learned from a luminary in the field, Dr. David Tilman. I studied many concepts relating biodiversity of ecosystems to their stability and how human perturbations like atmospheric deposition could affect plant community structure and function. I was on the cusp of an academic trajectory but felt the pull of my desire to “make a difference” that seemed potentially at odds with a traditional academic career. I know now in retrospect that distinction was only in my mind that one can have a positive effect from many different vantagepoints, but still fueled my decision to leave academia.
I embarked on a two-year Fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) through their Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program, to get a feel for the interface of science and policy and see if it was a good fit. I was placed at the EPA in the Office of Research and Development in the former National Center for Environmental Assessment’s Global Change Research Program. I absolutely loved it, and have worked on many projects including impacts from climate change on natural and urban systems, developing new standards for air quality to protect ecosystems, assessing the sustainability of biofuels and of the water quality effects from hydraulic fracturing, among many others. Since the AAAS Fellowship, I was hired on as a full-time researcher in the EPA, met and married my wife Mari (who as a lawyer is also working to make a difference), and had a fantastic little boy named Soren. We live in Maryland and spend our weekends playing with trains and rummaging around in the woods.
What do you like most about your research?
I think like many researchers I like two basic things about my research. First is the prospect of “making a difference.” I like that my research contributes to the scientific knowledge base that helps society make important decisions. The second thing I like just as much about my research is the intellectual curiosity of not knowing the answer to an important question (e.g. why is water quality not improving in some areas? What plant species are most vulnerable to air pollution and climate change), and the technical journey of discovery to find the answer to that question. It’ll sound funny, but I view technical research like Christmas. The truth or answer to the question is the gift inside the wrapped present, and we need to use all these techniques and analytical skills to “unwrap the present.” I also really enjoy working with so many different people across many different disciplines. Each of these issues are much more complex than any one researcher, scientist, or decision maker can address, so it takes a lot of people across many disciplines. I really like that because I’m always learning new things and exchanging ideas with other passionate people.
When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
I’ve always been curious about the world around me, but I wouldn’t say I knew I wanted to be a scientist until later in life. What I knew was that I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to do technical work on natural phenomena that mattered to society today. Whether that was through science, law, advocacy, or some other means wasn’t clear for a while. When I reached high school, I was seeing a lot of environmental debates on the ozone hole and climate change, and I didn’t feel like I understood the subject well enough to contribute in any meaningful way. There were lots of passionate people, but not all of them seemed well informed. That’s why I went into science as a student. But, that’s not the same as deciding to be a scientist as a profession. I don’t think that fully congealed until I was doing the AAAS Fellowship Program at the EPA after graduate school. I had always enjoyed science and research, but it wasn’t enough to simply enjoy it for myself. With the AAAS Fellowship I found a way that I could do something that I was good at and enjoyed, while still feeling like I was making a difference, that’s when I knew I had found my career path. It’s the old debate on whether you should “do what you’re good at” or “do what you’re passionate about.” I have been lucky enough to find a niche where I could have both!
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would you choose and what would you ask him or her?
I’m not much of a scientist groupie, I tend to be more awed by the ideas themselves than the people that came up with them. I’m weird like that. That being said, as a former physicist, I certainly would love to meet Einstein to know how he came up with many of his groundbreaking ideas given the isolation he experienced at the patent office in Bern. And Dmitri Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table, it’s amazing to me how he came up with that given the limited knowledge that was available at the time. It’s that creative thread in science that is most inspiring to me. Most scientists don’t have that, but the few that do end up having out-sized impacts on their field and also tend to enjoy it more!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a ton of different projects right now, which I really enjoy but also which can be overwhelming. They basically fall into four domains. The first is my technical roots from graduate school, where I work with a bunch of different scientists to determine how atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulfur may affect different ecosystems. Nitrogen occurs naturally throughout our environment and often stimulates plant growth. But too much of anything can be a problem and having the right balance in an ecosystem is important. Many of our daily activities, such as burning fossil fuels and fertilizing crops, can cause levels of nitrogen in our environment to rise to levels that mess up a lot of natural processes and communities. In my current work, I’m looking at how atmospheric nitrogen that is deposited on land impacts the biodiversity of plants and animals living there.
The second area I’m working on right now is biofuels. I’m the overall lead for the Third Triennial Report to Congress on biofuels, which assesses the effect of biofuels on many environmental end points like air quality, water quality, habitat, and invasive species. It’s a large effort with over 100 researchers, so it can be overwhelming at times, but it’s an important topic to help understand the environmental effects from the industry.
The third area is on enhanced efficiency fertilizers (EEFs). From my work on nitrogen in the air, I’ve gotten more and more involved with nitrogen in the water as a contributor to other projects. Through that any my participation on international projects related to nitrogen management, I’ve learned about many new technologies here and abroad to slow down the release of nitrogen and other nutrients in agricultural systems. That’s what EEFs are, they are essentially new technologies for fertilizers, where there are chemical or physical barriers that slow down the release of nutrients to crops. This means that more of the nutrient goes into the plant and less gets lost to the broader environment. I’m leading a collaboration between the EPA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on next generation fertilizers, to better understand the potential and performance of these new technologies, and to spark innovation of even more innovative approaches and technologies.
The fourth area is on climate change, which cuts across many of the earlier areas. I examine how plant communities (e.g. forests, grasslands) respond to climate change, and how their sensitivity to nitrogen and sulfur deposition are affected by climate and climate change. The EEFs project also addresses climate change, since these technologies can reduce the N2O emissions from agriculture (a potent greenhouse gas) and enhance carbon sequestration in our nations working and agricultural lands. I also contribute to the US Global Change Research Program, and to the associated National Climate Assessments, which coordinate and synthesize, respectively, research on the impacts from climate change on the U.S.
What impact do you see your research having?
It really depends on the project you’re talking about. For the atmospheric deposition work, I could see that helping to better understand which species and ecosystems are more at risk to air pollution. We’ve come a long way with the Clean Air Act and Amendments in reducing deposition, but it’s still above the levels at which many ecosystems are harmed. This may end up contributing to a new secondary standard for NOx and SOx under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). For the biofuels work, I hope that it can help policymakers better understand the impacts to date of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Program, and of biofuels more broadly. For EEFs, I hope that this effort can help reduce the environmental impacts from corn cultivation in the U.S. specifically, and from rowcrop agriculture in the U.S. and abroad more generally, while not placing undue burden on America’s farmers. I see this as a rare opportunity for a “win-win,” where we can improve the environment and increase the profitability of U.S. farms at the same time. For the climate change work, it could help us understand which ecosystems and plant species are most vulnerable to climate change, and how we may adapt to minimize these impacts.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
Well if I were still a young lad, I’d probably be a mountaineering guide, backcountry skier, or a travel writer. Now that I’m a dad in his mid-40’s, I’d probably own a small outdoor company somewhere or be travel writer/photographer in some remote corner of the world. But I have a pretty strong sense of civic duty, and really enjoy working with others to improve the state of the world. So, if I weren’t a scientist, I would probably be part of an NGO that focused on energy and the environment. How we extract and use energy underpins a lot of the challenges and opportunities we face in the environmental domain.
Any advice for students pursuing a career in science?
I would tell them to go for it, and never settle. Don’t be afraid to try things out and fail, eventually you’ll find the right fit and will be happier for it. You’re going to spend 1/3 of the rest of your life working (8 hrs/day), so best to find something you love and are good at. In the sciences, there are a ton of interesting, important questions that haven’t been answered and we need all the help we can get. Be curious, keep at it, and have fun!
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.