When Dr. William H. Sanders joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more than 30 years ago, he found something problematic — there simply weren’t enough minorities or women represented in the federal agency.
Sanders, who is the director of the National Center for Environmental Research in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, says the agency is making a long-term commitment by seeking out more minorities to enroll in the EPA’s Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship Program.
Sanders says that while the numbers of underrepresented groups have risen since the beginning of his career with the EPA in 1973, more needs to be done to recruit underrepresented groups into the fields of science and math.
“There are a lot more of the best and brightest out there,” Sanders says. However, “we never see enough.”
With its GRO program, the EPA hopes to help build capacity in universities that have limited resources for research and development by awarding fellowships to students in environmental fields in an effort to support some of the nation’s most promising undergraduate and graduate degree candidates in environmental studies.
By making more students aware of the GRO program’s existence and receiving more applications, the agency will have more opportunities to recruit “the cream of the crop,” Sanders says. Last year, more than 100 students applied for 29 highly selective fellowships.
Since its inception in 1995, the GRO program has awarded over 2,200 fellowships to students from every state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The program provides financial support through its stipends and offers students up to $10,000 for tuition and fees. One of the perks of the program is a three-month paid summer internship at an EPA facility.
In addition to financial support, the program connects fellows with mentors. Sanders says there is great value in students being able to see individuals who look like them in leadership positions in their respective fields.
Juandalyn Coffen, a senior at the historically Black Spelman College, was one of the 29 fellows selected in 2007. The 21-year-old says she wants to help excite younger students about math and science careers.
She says that minority involvement in the GRO fellowship shows professionals that minorities do aspire to take an active role in environmental and public health issues.
Coffen, who learned about the program through her professor and mentor, who is an alumnus of the GRO program, now interns at the EPA’s National Exposure and Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga. Coffen contributes to an on-going research project that involves identifying disinfectant byproducts (DBPs) that may be present in drinking water.
While students such as Coffen have been attracted to the program because of their mentors, Sanders says many fellows have been attracted to the agency because of environmental injustice.
Elan Mitchell, another Spelman student who is a 2007-2009 GRO fellow, says her involvement in the program will help her make more informed decisions about what programs are best to implement in her community.
“There are a myriad of issues involving underrepresented communities today that must be addressed,” she says.
This summer, Mitchell is interning at the EPA headquarters in the Office of Pollution, Prevention, and Toxins with the EPA Green Building Workgroup in Washington, D.C. Her research area has allowed her to focus mainly on environmental policy and initiatives with the design and construction of green buildings.
Sanders says the issues facing the fellows are complicated. The EPA veteran says scientists today cannot just consider immediate outcomes of an action, but rather the action’s impact on future generations and sustainability.
The agency will begin accepting applications for its next class of fellows in August.
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