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Meet EPA Scientist Valerie Zartarian, Ph.D.

Using Innovative Research to Help Protect Public Health

Senior exposure scientist and research environmental engineer Valerie Zartarian, Ph.D. helps build and apply computer models and analyze data, to advance our understanding of how people interact with chemicals.

The work she does provides EPA, states, and other decision makers with the information they need to make decisions that protect human health.

EPA scientist Valerie Zartarian EPA scientist Valerie Zartarian 

How does your science matter?

Since joining EPA over two decades ago, my science has focused on developing, applying, and providing human exposure science to inform decisions for protecting public health.

Several colleagues and I developed and applied a computer model, called SHEDS (that's short for: Stochastic Human Exposure and Dose Simulation model), that simulates how people contact chemicals in the environment from everyday activities: breathing, eating, touching surfaces, and putting their hands or other objects in their mouths. This human exposure modeling research has supported the Agency's risk assessments and regulatory decisions regarding residential pesticides, lead, and other toxic substances.

Most recently I have been leading a team that is applying geospatial statistical methods, models, and mapping to help identify places in the U.S. with the highest children’s lead exposures. This research can help focus actions of Federal, state, and local partners to reduce lead risks from various environmental sources, especially in the most disproportionately impacted communities.  I currently serve as the EPA co-chair for an inter-Federal agency working group for this research area under the Federal Lead Action Plan, and as the overall lead research coordinator for EPA ORD’s Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment (CPHEA) and in CPHEA’s Health and Environmental Effects Assessment Division. Before focusing on reducing childhood lead exposures, I worked on climate change and environmental justice research, and served as EPA co-chair of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Climate Justice. In that role, I was invited to be present at a (2016) White House event. 

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

There are so many to choose from! I'll go with Maria Mitchell, who became world famous for discovering a new comet, because she was truly a pioneer: first female U.S. astronomer, first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts & Science, and then to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, first professor at Vassar College, first internationally recognized female scientist.

I'm curious to ask about her quote, "How much science needs women." I would also ask about her experiences overcoming societal obstacles to reach her goals, and thank her for helping break career barriers for women by picking up a telescope.

What do you like most about your research?

My career has provided extraordinary opportunities to conduct innovative research and develop tools for the benefit of improving human health. I like that my research balances sound science, creativity, and practical use for the general public.

I've had the opportunity to interact with state, community, and tribal stakeholders and to collaborate with top scientists in EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) and EPA's Regional and Program Offices. I'm truly in awe of my colleagues, and feel extremely grateful and proud to be a researcher with EPA.

When did you first know you wanted to pursue science?

Probably junior year of high school. My teachers were inspirational role models, and I enjoyed all of my classes. By senior year I was intrigued by practical applications of math and science, and started to think about engineering as a career path.

Tell us about your science/educational background.

I was valedictorian of a high school with an excellent math and science program. Being captain of the Canton High (MA) math team, which was New England champion for many years, was a formative experience for me. Because I was equally drawn to English and drama, I attended Princeton University to pursue an engineering degree along with a strong liberal arts education. My undergraduate dissertation involved refining the land surface boundary component of global climate models.

After graduating Princeton with a B.S. in civil engineering, I worked for several years as a consultant with CDM (Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc.) in the water resources field, where I applied groundwater pollution models. That practical experience exposed me to the broader field of environmental engineering, so I attended Stanford University for a Masters degree.

My advisor was interested in understanding pesticide risks to children of migrant farm workers. I found this work fulfilling, and decided to stay on for a Ph.D.. Together we initiated the human exposure research program at Stanford. My doctoral dissertation topic on pesticide exposure modeling, which necessitated developing new videography methods to understand children's activity patterns, was unconventional for the civil and environmental engineering department, but launched me into the emerging field of human exposure science.

I joined EPA as a postdoctoral researcher in 1998; my graduate school work was timely for the new exposure modeling program.  My career path has evolved in exciting ways I could not have imagined.

What brought you to EPA?

I was introduced to human exposure science during graduate school by a former EPA scientist who was a founder of the field and a great mentor to me.  Another EPA colleague who had helped me as a PhD student, suggested I apply for the Agency's newly created postdoctoral research program in the Office of Research and Development (ORD). Several EPA managers (now retired) became mentors I'm still in touch with. They inspired me with their dedicated service to EPA's mission of protecting public health and the environment. 

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

That's a tough question for me, since I have many interests in both the arts and sciences. I really enjoy creative writing as a hobby (also competitive ballroom dancing, which I plan to do more after the pandemic), so I would probably try that professionally. Technical writing has been a favorite aspect of my ORD job. As a very proud mother of two -- a son and a daughter, who was born with medical issues -- I could also envision doing something else to make a difference regarding children's health.

Any advice for students considering a career in science?

I would suggest taking a broad range of courses in scientific areas of interest. Doing internships to explore different fields is helpful to gain practical experience and focus career areas. I recommend gaining some consulting experience before pursuing graduate studies. Seek out mentors to learn from, then seek opportunities to mentor others. 

Once a student has established scientific expertise in a specific area, publishing in the peer-reviewed literature, staying current with the latest research, attending conferences, and taking training courses are important. Continually practicing technical writing and public speaking skills is critical for communicating science to various audiences. My final piece of advice is to think big and apply interdisciplinary research approaches to solve the challenging (“wicked”) problems of our times. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.