Gray is the New Green Blog Series #3: Early days as an aspiring environmental scientist

Picking up where I left off, and what it was like when I was a young person in the environmental field and how things have changed…here are some reflections…

College days

So it’s 1977, I’m at Cook College, Rutgers University, studying Environmental Science and I think this is going to be a breeze. I was in the top ten of my high school class and felt like I was prepared to take on the world. But actually, it didn’t happen that way.

To refresh my memory, I had a copy of my college transcripts sent to me because I couldn’t remember the classes I took and I wanted to be able to talk about them honestly in this blog…I was horrified…let’s just put it this way…my daughter Frankie, who is currently a junior at U Miami, would be thrilled to have crushed my GPA. For most of the intro courses …chemistry, calculus, I was a straight “C” student. I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision being so far from home, wondering if maybe I should have studied music …remember there were no cell phones, no internet, no computers…maybe I should just quit and become a folk singer? I had the chance to do just that. In fact, I recorded in NYC…  I knew I didn’t want my love of singing to become a job…but by sophomore year I I needed a break from school.

Co-Op work opportunities were not what they are today but I managed to get a job with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. I inspected wastewater package plants and I walked streams looking for illegal discharges. These inspections were required as part the NPDES program which regulates discharges to surface water. There continue to be modern day “stream walkers” in search of illicit discharges to storm water. They still perform visual inspections but also use high tech tools to discover illicit discharges such as infrared, aerial, and thermal photography to locate dischargers by studying the temperature of the stream water in areas where algae might be concentrated and in soils.

Being a Co-Op student taught me a lot…like what it’s like to get up early, commute to work (from Perth Amboy to Trenton NJ-the 1979 energy crisis was at its peak so carpooling made sense because of gas rationing),, (hybrids and electric cars were not even in our minds) be responsible for paying rent…and that going to school was a lot better than working…smile.

The Environmental Science program offered today at Rutgers is much more multi-faceted . Remember when I was in school RCRA and CERLA were just being born! It was when I started taking classes in my major that I started to shine…Elements of Environmental Pollution; Water and Wastewater Analysis, International Environmental Studies, Environmental Toxicology, Environmental Impact Statements, Pollution Microbiology. I became somewhat of the Professor’s pet in Pollution Microbiology. Dr. Melvin Finstein was researching composting and needed assistance going through all the periodicals related to composting. I remember reviewing stacks upon stacks of periodicals, no internet, and summarizing my findings.

First jobs

Careers with an Environmental Science degree were not plentiful when I graduated in January 1982. The country was also experiencing a major recession.

My first “real” job, though temporary, was as a chemist at the East Providence Sewage Treatment Plant. The day they received my resume, their chemist fell and broke his leg…this is true! That job only lasted 2-3 months. I guess he healed quickly!

Lucy Servidio in the tank at her first job

My first real permanent job was Environmental, Health and Safety Coordinator for a plating company, W.F. Wood Corporation. I ran the ultrafiltration, cyanide destruct system, performed quality control testing on the plating line and kept the company out of trouble with the regulators. That’s exactly how the position was explained to me…keep us out of trouble. Visions of pollution prevention, sustainability or proactive anything were not even thought of, never mind an expectation. At this time, most companies were just trying to understand the new regulations related to hazardous waste management, chemical spills, water and air pollution control. I learned a lot and felt like I was protecting a very small portion of the planet. I wanted to get out and do something that I thought would have a greater impact…that’s when I decided to become a consultant. Not to “dis” plating but they say if you stay in the industry for more than 5 years you never get out…I think I was at 4 years and 360 days! Smile

Since the 1970’s, a multitude of careers have grown out of the environmental movement. The jobs can be more impactful to business’s bottom line, more impactful to the planet and more satisfying.

I’ll talk more about consulting and where it has taken me in my next blog…Lucy



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