Multiculturalism in the Aquatic Sciences

Minorities in the Aquatic Sciences

Bonita C. Johnson

Microbiologist, United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Region IV Science and Ecosystem Support Division (SESD), Bioassessment and Toxics Evaluation Section
Johnson.bonita@epa.gov

Academic Preparation:

1988 Tuskegee University, Biology/Chemistry; 1991 Auburn University, Environmental Science

Research/Professional Interests:

My research specialties are aquatic toxicity and microbiology. Some pf my current research initiatives include; (1) Toxicity Evaluation and Reduction Programs involving the use of Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) acute and chronic tests of reproduction, growth, inhibition, and mortality to assess the toxic effects of Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) effluent, surface water, ground water, sediment pore water, storm water, and soil leachates on the freshwater organisms Ceriodaphnia dubia (water flea) and Pimephales promelas (fathead minnow);(2) Toxicity Evaluation and Reduction Programs involving the use of the Microtox Test System to determine the toxic effects of drinking water, WWTP effluent, septic truck discharge, and landfill soil leachate on the luminescent marine bacteria, Vibrio fischeri.:Microbiological studies of WWTP effluent, ground water, surface water, and recreational waters to detect and enumerate total and fecal coliform, enterococci, Escherichia coli (E. c! oli), and other thermal tolerant organisms which may serve as indicators of potential disease causing agents present in these water; (3) Technical and Compliance related Quality Assurance Programs which help States adhere to federal requirements governing Water Treatment Plant operations, chemical and biological laboratory analyses, and drinking water quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA); (4) Technical and Compliance related Quality Assurance Programs which help States adhere to federal requirements governing Wastewater Treatment Plant operations, chemical and biological laboratory analyses, national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES) permitting, and water quality criteria under the Clean Water Act (CWA); (5) Outreach and Education Programs developed to educate individuals in a variety of organizations of environmental issues, regulations, and policies affecting local, State and Indian lands; (6) Outreach and Education Programs organized to address the spec! ific c oncerns of community groups regarding ongoing environmental issues that may potentially impact their communities; (7) Education Initiatives designed to promote and encourage young people to pursue careers in the areas of Science, Mathematics, and Technology through hands-on interactive learning activities.

Biographical and Research Summary:

I was an inquisitive child beyond the typical toddler who may ask why? … why? … why? some how, never satisfied with the answer given, but constantly wanting to know more about a subject and to understand the content of what was being explained. Some thirty years later, I have not changed. I am still as inquisitive as I was then, but instead of asking others why? I have learned the processes necessary to find the answers.

I learned to read at the age of four and was pretty obsessed with it. My attraction was for mystery stories. In elementary school, along with Georgia Championship Wrestling, I developed a love for television shows like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, Trapper John, M.D. and my number one favorite, Quincy. Quincy was “the man” in my book, a Medical Examiner and Forensic Pathologist. It was so fascinating to me how Quincy could analyze a situation, develop a theory, work his theory and solve the case. Given a few facts, Quincy would methodically determine what caused the situation.

As I reflect back on my childhood, I now realize that I was born a scientist, but needed the benefits of education and experience to prepare me for my career and life as a scientist. Mystery stories and television shows like Quincy appealed to me because they involved analyzing, investigating, and problem solving.

Although I can clearly see now that having a career in science was inevitable for me, getting here was no easy task. After high school, I attended Tuskegee University, a historically Black College or University (HBCU) in Tuskegee, Alabama. I selected Tuskegee because of the rich history, closeness in proximity to my home, and because the school has a great reputation for producing excellent scholars. I first learned of Tuskegee when I was in elementary school. I remember reading about George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, and being so amazed by their accomplishments. I still have such great admiration and appreciation for them and all African-Americans who went through the struggles of discrimination and other travesties of adversity, but came out on top and made unprecedented, indelible marks on society.

Initially, I pursued a career in Medicine, but really did not have much passion about it. I think I was doing what I felt others might have wanted me to do. After taking an Environmental Biology class in college, I got very interested in the Environmental Science, particularly, Toxicology; the study of nature, effects, and poisons. I spoke with a family member who happens to be a Medical Doctor about my interest, but after our discussion on the subject, I felt discouraged from pursuing a career in Toxicology. So I continued with Medicine in mind, but really felt as though my heart was not in it. Suggestion #1: Follow your heart and be realistic, don’t pursue an area which you know does not suit you! You deserve to be happy!

Unfortunately, when I got out of college many companies and governmental agencies that typically employ scientists were under hiring freezes. After doing some temporary work, I decided to go back to college and study Environmental Science. I attended Auburn University. Soon after school, the freezes were lifted and I began receiving offers from many companies. My first job in this field was as a Wastewater Operator for the county I live in. I was responsible for monitoring and making process changes to ensure that wastewater at the treatment plant was being treated properly and would meet the standards established for NPDES permitting under the Clean Water Act. I would have preferred to begin my career in the Laboratory, but there were only vacancies in operations when I applied. So, I made the most of the opportunity and got my foot in the door. Suggestion #2: Make the most of the opportunities you have! You may not start at the point you want to be, but the exp! erienc e can help you get there!

I was the first female wastewater operator employed by Dekalb County. As I think about that experience now, I realize that I had a great responsibility. People were watching to see if a female could really do the job. I was told that behind closed doors, some people would quietly say, “no woman will ever be a wastewater operator for this county”. Back then it really did not don on me that I was, in a since, paving the way for other females. I merely wanted to learn and perform my job to the best of my abilities. It was not long before I was promoted to Laboratory Analyst and within two years of that promotion, I held the dual positions of Supervisor of the Bacteriology Laboratory and Aquatic Biologist, and was primarily responsible for overseeing all of the microbiological analyses conducted at the lab, and for performing all of the required toxicity tests for the County. I was the youngest person to serve in the role of supervisor and this was a definite challenge! for m e since at least one person I supervised was almost twenty years older that me. As a few years went by, I felt the urge to spread my wings and so in addition to my fulltime job with the County, I began working as a consultant and an independent contractor providing Microbiological and Toxicity related services to Environmental Laboratories and Engineering Firms. Suggestion #3: Challenge and believe in yourself! You may not be successful at all attempts, but you should not be discouraged, keep trying! Preparation and Persistence pays off!

When I began consulting, I realized that it was important for me to become more knowledgeable of the federal regulations that govern activities involving water and our environment. I had already obtained knowledge and experience in operations and the laboratory, and I wanted to learn more so that I could be more marketable and valuable. In 1998, I began my career with the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, Georgia as an Environmental Scientist/Program Manager, writing, communicating, and implementing regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Until October 2000, I was fortunate to have worked for a gentleman who was very interested in my growth and development, personally and professionally. He has demonstrated through his progress that he has what it takes to succeed in this field. After watching him, speaking with him, listening to him very attentively, and seeing the positive effects he has made on his staff and management, I identified him as a mento! r. On e of suggestions he made to me was to read as much as I can about environmental issues and to take assignments in different areas of the agency to gain more knowledge and exposure, and so I did. Suggestion #4: Identify a Mentor who works in a field that you are interested in, speak with them about the experiences they have had, seek suggestions of things that you can do to increase your chances of doing well in that area! Having a mentor is really important. He or she can be an excellent source of information and can provide a strong support base for you!

Currently, I work in Athens, Georgia. My primary function is to provide technical and analytical assistance to EPA in various areas of environmental microbiology, such as: to conduct laboratory evaluations, review and/or develop methodologies, and microbiological principles related to applicable technology for waste and water analyses, and innovative approaches to resolve operational problems, and to provide technical assistance, advice and guidance to microbiologists/analysts, and/or officials of Federal, State, local, and private laboratories to help them meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and other regulatory guidelines. Because I have these responsibilities, I must travel within the eight States that make up Region IV. They are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi. My travel outside of the Region is typically to attend conferences. Traveling has been a wonderful experience for me. I have gotten! to vi sit nice places and to meet some very interesting people. I am blessed to have a career I enjoy.

I would love to see more African-Americans pursue careers in the Aquatic Science field. Oftentimes, when I attend meetings and conferences, I am the only African-American in attendance. There are many opportunities available in this field, and with over 50% of the government workforce being of retirement age, there will be many more opportunities available in the near future. Suggestion #5: Dare to dream, Think positive thoughts, Conceive It, Believe It and Achieve It! Your dreams can come true!