Meet EPA Scientist Katherine Ratliff, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Ratliff researches how contamination moves around in the environment and what types of decontamination practices are most effective for cleaning up that contamination. She is currently evaluating different types of technologies and methods aimed at reducing the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This includes assessing different types of air treatment technologies that have been proposed for use to reduce airborne virus concentrations, as well as testing devices that are designed to inactivate viruses and other pathogens on surfaces.
Tell us about your background.
I have a B.A. in Earth and environmental sciences from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. at Duke University. I started a postdoc position at EPA after finishing up at Duke.
When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
I always enjoyed being outside growing up, but I never thought I’d end up being a scientist. It wasn’t until I took some Earth science classes in college that I realized I’d found my niche. I also had the opportunity to lead and participate in a variety of research projects as an undergraduate, which was not only great work experience, but it also caused me to fall in love with the research process.
What do you like most about your research?
I am highly motivated by the applied nature of our research. We work closely with our stakeholders to ensure that we are addressing the most urgent and difficult questions and needs, which then makes it easy to see the direct positive impact of my work.
How does your science matter?
In my research, I identify and develop the tools and technologies that are needed to track and clean up contamination, particularly in challenging situations and complex settings. These methods and strategies are critical for protecting public health and the environment.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?
I’ve always been interested in government and having a positive impact. I think it would be very exciting (and probably very frustrating) to be behind-the-scenes in politics, maybe as a policy analyst.
What advice would you give a student interested in a career in science?
Sometimes it can be hard to see the rationale for why we study certain subjects. If you’re having a hard time understanding why a particular topic is important, ask your friends, family, or neighbors about how they’ve used what they learned about that subject outside of school, or look up different types of applications of whatever you’re studying. I’ve always found it more motivating to focus on a particular topic when I see examples of how it can be applied in the real world.
What do you think the coolest scientific discovery was and why?
The Navier-Stokes equations, which describe the motion of fluids, have made such an important impact on so many different scientific and engineering fields.
What do you think is our biggest scientific challenge in the next 20/50/100 years?
Overcoming the negative impacts of climate change is something that we will have to address globally. So, the challenge is twofold – first, developing the technologies needed to help protect our environment; and second, figuring out how to coordinate and cooperate as a global community to advance the goals needed to protect societies and the environments across our planet.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.