Biology PhD grad makes her mark at EPA

There’s a tense political environment in Washington these days, but Carolina Peñalva-Arana is more focused on the actual environment.

Dr. Peñalva-Arana works in the Risk Assessment Division (RAD) of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), a branch of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention at the Environmental Protection Agency. She’s part of the team that assesses the environmental risks of pesticides, solvents, oils, and any chemical with an industrial use. The RAD team also deals with biotechnology products – genetically engineered substances such as bacteria, plants, or animals. EPA’s OPPT deals mostly with chemicals produced by bacteria. Because biotechnology is such a quickly-evolving field, government regulation is often catching up on regulations and technology. Dr. Peñalva-Arana is part of an interagency group made up the EPA, FDA, and USDA tasked with updating and clarifying the agencies’ roles and regulatory policies associated with new products derived from these emerging technologies.

“I never thought I would get a chance to work with environmental policy as a scientist. That’s been a part that I’ve really enjoyed,” she said.

It was a long road to the EPA. Peñalva-Arana arrived in the United States at age 12, a political refugee who fled a brutal civil war in El Salvador. She “worked [her] butt off” through middle and high school in California to be accepted to Oberlin College, where she majored in Spanish Literature and Biology.

“I did a research experience for undergraduate at the Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee, and that’s how I was introduced to animal behavior in water systems and to UW-Milwaukee. I realized that I liked research,” Peñalva-Arana said. Three years after graduation from Oberlin, “I called Rudi Strickler, my PhD advisor at UW-Milwaukee, and asked if he would take me on as his PhD student.”

At UWM, Peñalva-Arana found herself fascinated by aspects of animal behavior, and especially by how animals detect chemicals in the water. Much of her work revolved around a keystone aquatic species called Daphnia, or water fleas. Daphnia are commonly used in chemical testing to determine the effects chemicals may have on aquatic species.

Carolina Penalva-Arana stands in front of the EPA building in the Federal Triangle in Washington, D.C.

In a stroke of perfect timing, when Peñalva-Arana graduated from UWM with her PhD in Biological Sciences in 2007, Indiana University had a postdoctoral fellowship opening, where she was able to help annotate the newly-sequenced Daphnia genome. By this time, Peñalva-Arana had already had her first taste of work with the EPA. While completing two years of her PhD education at UW-Madison, she had earned funding for her Daphnia research through an EPA STAR/GRO Fellowship.

After her postdoctoral experience at Indiana University, she began casting around for other work.

“I did a postdoc at the EPA. I love the vision of the EPA, which is to protect human health and the environment. I love that I get to take my knowledge and do something impactful, and also that you get to think about policy and you get to think about how regulation works and how you implement acts and rules that come out,” she said.

The postdoctoral position eventually turned into a full-time job, and Peñalva-Arana enjoys her current position in the RAD. Working in a government agency comes with its own set of challenges and rewards.

“You want to protect the public and you want to protect the environment, but everything the EPA does needs authority that is granted by Congress. Just because we see a problem doesn’t mean we can address it until Congress tells us to address it,” Peñalva-Arana said. “Things like fracking, for example. Congress was very specific that we could only work on the effects of hydro fracking on drinking water. We couldn’t look at ecological effects.”

And, she added, the general public has some strong opinions on the role of the EPA – everything from praise for protecting the environment to criticism for “killing jobs” and “over-regulating industry.”

What’s rewarding is that Peñalva-Arana finds herself on the forefront of new science and policies every day. Biotechnology in particular is a growing field with new questions to explore. For example, how will genetically engineered algae affect the environment? Can you create new organisms using a genetic chassis and inserting genes of interests to scientists? What policies should be in place to ensure the environment and the public are protected?

That last question is why she recommends that science students learn more than just the science.

“Be diverse in the classes that you take and the experiences that you pursue. You shouldn’t be so narrow-minded in pursuit of your degree that you don’t consider what else is out there,” Peñalva-Arana said. “For me, working at the EPA, working on policy questions, science policy, was not something on my radar at all. But I’m loving it.”

– Sarah Vickery