When you were 17, what did you want to be?
At that time, I wanted a job outdoors, riding a horse, so I thought I was going to be a forest ranger. I grew up in New Hampshire, and I always found my joy in the outdoors and nature. We had a lot of woods near us, and I was always into skiing and snowmobiling and swimming. Then in eighth grade, I did a really amazing three-day camping trip to a nearby mountain. We had planned it for three months, and all the teachers were in on the curriculum for this mountain trip, the math teacher, the English teacher, the history teacher. We took soil and water samples and journaled and did art and hiked all around this mountain, which was pretty eye opening. So I just wanted to make money being outside.
How did you decide to attend University of New Hampshire?
I went straight to school, eager to get away from home. I applied to a few schools, but being almost the first person in my family to go to college, there was no money. So I went to the in-state school, which was the University of New Hampshire. It was fabulous. The freedom to pick my own journey was a little bit scary, but the campus was gorgeous and it had a lot of trees and it wasn't too small. It was a good fit for me. I was motivated, and I was inspired by the outdoors and being out on my own, and I felt like the world was mine. I was lucky.
How did you choose your major?
I went in as a forestry major initially. Then I got into a soil science class that was a prerequisite for forestry, and I had a very good professor who took me under his wing. Some people thought he was a little bit of a nutty professor, but he hired me to work for him and he started talking to me about minoring in soil science. He said forestry was too broad. So I said, "Alright, I'll minor in soil science."
That required me to take some plant chemistry classes and soil chemistry classes, and I found out that I really liked chemistry. I had despised chemistry in high school, but when it was real and applied to soil, dirt, and plants, I loved it.
And then my advisor said, "You know, you're really close to dual-majoring. You might as well stay an extra summer and semester and graduate with a dual degree in soil science and chemistry.” So I double majored in soil science and chemistry.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I had a very serendipitous moment when I was standing around a job board and a friend walked up and asked me what was going on. I told them I was graduating this semester. And they asked me, "Well, what are you looking for?" And I said, "I don't know. Something to do with environmental soil science or chemistry, but I'm not sure." And a guy walked up to me and handed me his business card and said, "If you have time to come to my new lab, I might have a job for you."
So, I did. I went out there, and he was this young, entrepreneurial guy who had started a lab. He had been watching the regulations that had just started to come out because of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and he was setting up a lab to do the required environmental testing.
I wasn't done with school yet, so I started working the graveyard shift for him from midnight until 8:00 AM, and then I’d go to my chemistry class in the morning. So, when I got out of school, I already had a job. And it was fabulous because I got to develop methods and learn things that I never would've learned. This was cutting-edge science for the time. It was the first time people were using these gas chromatograph mass spectrometers to get parts per billion analysis of pesticides, and we were lucky enough to have this amazing instrument in the lab.
I only stayed at that lab for a year because I had some friends who had graduated a year earlier than me who were out in California, living on the beach in San Diego, having a grand old time, and they convinced me to join them. So I packed up and left and joined my friends in San Diego. I didn't get a job right away, but I found out what a recruiter was, and I was in high demand because I had experience in this cutting-edge industry. So I got a job up in the Los Angeles area and I worked in another lab there
I worked my way up in that lab and stayed in LA for seven years. There are two sides of testing, the polluter and the enforcement agencies, and we did testing for both sides. But in the lab, you're neutral; you're just a scientist giving them data. Is your fish contaminated or isn't it? It was a crazy time, almost like the days of the dot-com boom. We were having great parties and we were on the Queen Mary. It was like working for Google; business was booming.
I ended up working for five different labs. And I kept getting promoted, first to supervisor, then I was in charge of quality assurance/quality control, then I was the technical director, then I was the assistant lab director. And we had some big contracts worth millions of dollars with Lockheed Martin and the Court of Long Beach. I was really working hard and I was well placed and it was a fun time.
Then I met somebody and decided that I was going to start the next phase of my life, getting married and starting a family. We didn't want to raise our kids in LA, so we moved up to the Bay Area. I got a job as director of three labs, two in Martinez and one in San Francisco. So I looked at the map and looked at what was halfway between them, which was Moraga, and that's where we landed. And I've been in Moraga for 28 years.
Then I decided to start my own consulting business. It was difficult; there was a lot of paperwork, and there was a lot of fighting and trying to get the next job. And when you factor in medical insurance and taxes and the late nights trying to get your next job, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. So a friend of mine had left the lab industry, and he said, "Come work over at EPA." And I said, "I'll never work for a bureaucracy like that." But he said it would be good for my resume, and the benefits were good, so I thought I could do that for a year and see how it went. Well, I was there for 20 years.
I loved it. Even though I was so far from the forest and the trees, on the 18th floor in downtown San Francisco, I was with some of the most amazing environmentally-conscious people, writing policy and affecting change and looking at the data I had been collecting. Now, instead of telling everybody what's in their samples and not doing anything about it, I felt like I was actually doing more of the environmental protection. So, it was fun, it was exciting, and everybody there really believed in the mission to protect human health and the environment.
I was there for 20 years, so I had about ten different jobs. I did enforcement for a while, and then I had this aha moment that these companies were paying these million dollar penalties but then just going back to doing business as usual. That was really depressing. So then I decided to get into this Community Right-to-Know program that would let people type in their zip code and find out who’s polluting in their neighborhood.
So they had developed this program for zip codes, but they hadn't taken into account that zip codes were meaningless for a tribal nation. I was really interested in working with tribes to make sure that some of that money went back to the community. We did one in the Four Corners area with a coal mining plant, and the money went back into the Navajo Nation. It took a lot of extra work, but that’s what I liked about EPA; there was some flexibility if you really wanted to do things for the community.
Then I decided to get into the Superfund program which was a fund that had been established for super-contaminated sites. I loved it because I had my own site that I was in charge of, from testing for contamination to doing community outreach with public hearings and doing cleanup, plus negotiations with lawyers for settlements. I really felt like this was the whole picture. I did that for 15 years.
But within that, I did a detail overseas for Community Right-to-Know programs in third world countries. I got to go to Gambia, Ghana, Namibia, and South Africa to train their presidents and their cabinet members on existing environmental laws about pesticides and mines and oil and gas.
Then I got very active in local politics. I had been living in Moraga, and there was a hill behind my house that someone told me was up for development, 250 acres. So, in my spare time at night, I started going to city council meetings to protect this land. It was rough and hilly, so we started a campaign to protect it as open space and we won.
But we realized that no matter what we did, unless we had elected officials on the city council to vote, we were never going to get anything done. So we went out trying to get somebody to run for election. We found this one guy who was a soccer coach, an environmentalist, a math teacher, head of the HOA, and he said he would run for election – but only if I ran with him.
So, after much thought, I said okay. We got all our papers and learned the process. There was seven people running for three seats, and The East Bay Times came out and endorsed three candidates and put me as the least likely to get elected, but that I was a voice to be reckoned with. So I thought I'd be like the Ralph Nader of the group, and at least get the topics discussed that needed to be discussed. And I ended up winning.
The way a small town works is the that highest vote getter rotates in as the mayor, so I ended up being the mayor of Moraga for four years. I was still working full-time at EPA and I got into this leadership development program where I was writing climate change policy for EPA. I got to do a six-month detail, so I decided to work with a nonprofit group that worked with mayors on climate change.
When the US and Australia did not sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, 700 mayors decided to sign it and said, "We represent our people." That was really exciting, because I was seeing what I could do in Moraga with town politics. And then I got to go work with Robert Redford at the Sundance Summit because he was developing a climate change toolkit for all the mayors in the country.
They were calling me a single-issue mayor, and saying, "All she cares about is the environment." But I'm a scientist and I really thought of climate change as the most important thing for the survival of the human race. So instead of running for election again, I decided to form a 501c3 working with the mayors of Contra Costa County on climate action planning, Contra Costa Climate Leaders.
I continued to work at EPA in the Superfund program up until I left a year ago. I was working on a job up in the Tahoe area that was impacting the Washoe tribe, and my site was managed by BP Oil. Then Scott Pruitt was appointed as head of the EPA, and he had friends at BP Oil with deep pockets. I started feeling like I was going to lose my job. And then along came this early buyout.
I wasn't planning on retiring for 10 years, but I was afraid of losing my job and my boss was telling me to be quiet and I had never seen any of this stuff going down before. So I decided to take it.
Since then, I've been focusing on my nonprofit, Contra Costa Climate Leaders. I've been working on my Spanish because ideally I'd like to do more environmental outreach to Spanish-speaking communities. I’ve been traveling, and
I just did a 10-day silent meditation retreat as well, which is something I've always wanted to do. I’ve been spending time in nature with my dog, hiking and backpacking. I've done some volunteer work at Chabot Space and Science Center for their climate series. And I work with a group called Global Student Embassy where they bring high school kids to Nicaragua and Ecuador and teach them about environmental farming. So I'm trying to see how the pieces come together right now.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
A lot of people have told me that I’m not good at consensus building and compromise, but I think it's good that I didn't go that route. It didn't harm me in the end - it helped me. Even though I don't have my job at EPA right now because I was too hard on BP Oil, I still feel like I did the right thing. I mean, we spend so much of our day working, you have to do something that lets you sleep at the end of the day knowing that you're okay. And looking back, this is probably going to be the best thing I ever did. It just doesn't feel like it at the moment. I don't think I'd be where I am if I had been a compromiser.
I tell the students that work for me not to be afraid of stepping back and looking at all possibilities. Keep your eyes open. Look around. Because you just never know what you're going to find. If I hadn't gone to see that guy over at the lab, I wouldn't have had the career I’ve had. If I hadn't gone to EPA for one year, I wouldn't have gotten to do all of the fabulous things I did. Sometimes I feel like I doubt myself and I might start to lose sleep, but you just have to go forward and keep your eyes open to all the possibilities and see where they might fall in. Be true to yourself and keep your options open and don't be afraid to take a little bit of a risk.