Karen Morrison ’08 (chemistry), assistant director at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, describes her career path and why she wouldn’t change a thing.
Could you describe your career path and how it and your interests intertwine?
I graduated from Harvey Mudd in 2008 (chemistry) and went from there to grad school to get my PhD in organic chemistry at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.
I intended to work at a pharmaceutical company or do some sort of research that had tangible, practical implications for people. That had always been important to me: doing work that impacted the lives of others. While I was at grad school, I discovered that I liked doing research, but I wasn’t passionate about being in the lab 12 hours a day, six days a week. As interesting and as important as the drug discovery pipeline is, it is also incredibly grueling. It became clear to me that there wasn’t a close enough nexus for what I wanted to do.
About three or four years into grad school, I took a step back to think about what I wanted to do with my life, what questions are interesting to me and what kind of career makes sense. So, I started looking into what happens to the chemicals when they enter into the environment. And that was really where my interest in environmental chemistry developed. Up to this point, I’d been researching pharmaceuticals—i.e. thinking about what happens to people who take them—but now I was more interested in knowing what happens when they exit our bodies. How do they impact the environment? What happens to them in the wastewater treatment stream?
As a part of our graduate curriculum, we had to do an independent research proposal, so I did this as my research proposal. I remember very clearly defending it in front of my faculty committee and one of them, after I finished presenting, looked at me and said, “This is the weirdest proposal I have ever had.” I thought, “Okay, these are the questions I’m interested in, so this is definitely not the right field for me.”
So, I started looking a lot more into environmental chemistry. There are several fellowships that place people out of graduate programs into government institutions with the goal of improving scientific literacy in those government positions. I found a program in California that was modeled on the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which was designed to put PhD scientists and master’s engineers into the California Legislature. I wound up getting a fellowship as a part of that program, and I was placed on the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.
As you know, the Legislature introduces bills and those bills eventually get voted on to become laws. In the process of those bills being voted on, they go through a number of committees for review, and each of the committees has areas of focus, like the impacts to business, agriculture and the environment; I sat on the latter committee in the Senate. I had the opportunity to analyze different bills coming through the legislature, everything ranging from bans on fracking, impacts of groundwater contamination, efficient management of groundwater in the state, and contamination by pesticides and use of pesticides within the state. The committee hosted a number of oversight hearings to look at issues of transport by rail, fracking and safe disposal of pharmaceutical compounds.
All in all, I had a fabulous year! It was a complete change from anything that I had done in grad school or undergrad ever.
After that, I worked for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). It is part of the California EPA and its purview is recycling, trash disposal and composting. I was there three years and then moved to a new position with the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Initially, I was a science and policy advisor, but I have recently been promoted to assistant director for the Pesticide Programs Division. It is a very exciting role. My primary job is developing mitigation strategies for addressing risks to the environment and to people from the use of pesticides. In other words, I will be helping to develop policies that make pesticides less risky to people and the environment.
How might Harvey Mudd students comfortably diverge into career paths they didn’t initially consider or think they could enter?
When I was at Harvey Mudd, I knew very little about pesticides. But as you move into different careers, you’re also looking at what are the skills that you bring: Can you communicate? Can you write well? Can you learn? Can you have difficult conversations with people who hold opposing views and come out of it at the end speaking to each other?
I’ve always felt like the training at Mudd is really good at developing those skills, even if that wasn’t always a primary focus of the classes. It is essential to communicate science in a way that’s intelligible. How do you talk to people who aren’t like you? How do you talk to people in other majors, who may not agree with the way that your major views things? It’s how to have conversations about approaches to problems.
Most states have a Department of Environmental Quality or Resources. How do you think a scientist brings value when talking about these issues, and why do we need scientists at the table in these discussions?
The value for having scientists in a department that does environmental impacts is that you have people who can look at the literature to see what is actually being done, recognize the state-of-the-art science and understand how different systems work. To me, the science provides the “how,” and the policy is more of a “why.”
I think that there are a lot of smart people who are in government, who have backgrounds in law, political science, economics, etc. They are able to think through these problems but can’t answer the scientific questions and can’t always ask the scientific questions because that’s not where their training is necessarily. I think that scientists fit into that area of being able to say, “Here is the scientific justification for what we can do, or here’s one possible solution to this based on the best available science that we have.” Having scientists at the table can help people make better informed decisions.
Karen Morrison ’08 is an assistant director at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. She has worked as a science policy advisor and analyst in California since 2013. She has a B.S. from Harvey Mudd College and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.