WSRG member Alex Langlais-Bourassa spent the Fall of 2016 at the US EPA in Washington. Here he shares a few words about his experience…
This fall, I had the privilege (and pleasure!) to go to Washington D.C. as a visiting scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). This internship was part of the Ecolac NSERC CREATE training program scholarship I received for my Master’s project. I was under the supervision of Dr. Amina Pollard, Research Ecologist for the monitoring branch in the office of wetlands, oceans, and watersheds with USEPA. Myself and Dr. Pollard worked with data from the National Lake Assessment. This dataset encompass 1200 continental U.S lakes and was designed to assess their state. Sampled data included water quality, lake morphometry, as well as plankton community abundance. Using a subset of these lakes, we decided to explore changes in functional and taxonomic diversity of zooplankton and phytoplankton communities, to identify variables responsible for these changes and to extract ecoregional patterns in this dataset. The goal was to be able to predict a certain plankton community based on environmental variables and functional or taxonomic diversity.
On a professional level, this experience was my first time doing scientific research in a non-academic institution. I was really pleased to see that people outside universities would use statistical and geomatic software like R and ArcGIS to analyze and present their data. I was also surprised how huge US federal agencies like USEPA were, with many offices in several states. Research is at the centre of the monitoring branch I was in, and I really enjoyed the experience I got there. I am now more confident in performing statistical analyses on very large datasets. Also, unlike before, I would consider a career in research outside academia. On a personal level, this internship was for me both challenging and eye-opening. Lots of first-times : first time on a plane, first time outside Canada for this long, first time airbnb, first time in Washington D.C., first time in a federal agency, first US election (more on that below), first time contra-dancing and first time seeing the Nutcracker Ballet (thanks Amina!!). I was also able to visit the Library of Congress, several Smithsonian museums (they’re all free, by the way), and also play a game of bowling with colleagues at the White House! In addition, I thought it was interesting to experience the cultural differences between Canadians and US citizens, especially on topics like security and individual liberties.
It was also very interesting to be in Washington as the USA was choosing a new president. I had the feeling that in Canada, people were surprised that Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th president of the USA. In D.C., people were mostly upset or angry (90% voted for Hillary Clinton). Everyone around me was quite shocked about this election. Especially at the USEPA, where funding and recruitment are now on the line, notably because president Trump says he doesn’t really believe in climate change and because he also installed Scott Pruitt, a huge coal industry lobbyist, as the new head of the EPA. The next 4 years might be quite different for people inside the USEPA, but I sure hope that they continue with their amazing work. To all the great people I met at the USEPA – I wish you all the very best – and thank you for this amazing experience.