Name: Michael Paul, 43
Position: Senior scientist at Tetra Tech, an environmental engineering and consulting firm.
What He Does: Paul assists federal and state agencies nationally with their water-quality programs — preventing and cleaning up pollution in lakes and rivers to keep them clean for drinking, swimming and fishing, and for plants and wildlife. His particular specialty is in “bioassessment” — counting the types and numbers of fish and insects in a stream to determine how healthy the stream is.
A healthy stream has clean water and the right naturally occurring chemical balance so fish and wildlife can thrive. Insects serve as a useful yardstick for measuring stream quality, because they are often the first animals to be affected by pollution — so the kinds and numbers of bugs in the water can indicate how polluted a stream is.
Paul’s data helps states set legal limits for nutrient runoff in streams. When fertilizer runoff from lawns or farms enters a stream, algae take over and choke the stream, creating a “dead zone.” It sounds like a fiddly topic, but “a lot of lawsuits” have been filed over states’ failure to set nutrient runoff limits, Paul says.
How He Got This Job: Paul got a Bachelor of Arts degree (instead of a more focused Bachelor of Science degree) in biology at Colgate University in New York, “which I’m really happy about. The B.A. degree meant I had to learn how to write and communicate.” He followed up with a master’s in zoology and a Ph.D. in ecology, then took a postdoctoral position in the geography department at the University of Georgia, studying with a guy who worked on “fluvial geomorphology” — how rivers affect the life in and around them. The intersection of all those fields plus his passion pretty much sealed the deal.
Who Would Want This Job: Nature lovers. “I’ve been playing in streams since I was five years old,” says Paul. Doing it for a living: even better.
After 11 years at Tetra Tech, he does less fieldwork than he’d like. “I spend almost all my time in front of a computer looking at data, reading and writing,” he says. But the work is rewarding, and Paul says the field tends to attract a laid-back personality type. “Smart people that are fun to hang out with make life pretty enjoyable,” he says.
“Continuously being challenged is great. Water-quality work is not rocket science — it’s harder than rocket science.”
How You Can Get This Job: If getting as much higher education as Paul did fills you with dread, fear not — most of Paul’s colleagues have master’s degrees only. Having a firm grasp of science is important, but more important, he says, is being able to write about and talk about your work. “It’s one of those things schools don’t really teach all that well, but when you go into a consulting track in environmental science, it’s a skill that differentiates some performers from others.”