Careers in Environmental Science
Environmental scientists use their expertise to protect natural resources. As the population grows, environmental scientists will be needed to preserve water and provide advice on land use and building projects, study and design sites for waste disposal, control pollution, and repair damaged natural areas. Careers in environmental science are so varied that it is difficult to consider them in a single category. Wildlife biologists, zoologists, and horticulturalists are often involved in research and may find themselves working in a mix of outdoors and in an office. Microbiologists, soil and plant scientists, and ecologists could work in remediation efforts, for sanitation companies, in manufacturing, at a university, or for many private companies. Environmental scientists may be engaged in environmental policy or management and work for local government agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, or the U.S. Geological Survey. The following are descriptions of common careers in environmental science.
An agronomist is a professional who practices, or does research in the area of, agronomy, which is the art and science of managing field crops and the soils beneath them. Agronomy emerged early in the 20th century when this component of agriculture involving the growing of plants was separated from animal husbandry. It has continued to evolve as subcategories develop within the crop and soil sciences, such as the study of forage crops, tropical cropping systems, weed science, and turf science and management (i.e., the growth of grasses for golf courses and parks).
*physiology branch of biology that deals with the functions and activities of living matter
Seed science and technology; agroforestry (i.e., the growth of timber in plantations); agricultural economics and engineering; and the nutrition, physiology * , and ecology of crop plants are other interests of agronomists. They also often concentrate on soil conservation and the structural, chemical, and physical properties of soil that affect the growth of crops. Because of this extensive diversification, professionals working in these fields now often use the specialty to define their occupation Page 162 | Top of Articlerather than the broader designation of agronomist. All of these disciplines contribute toward increasing the productivity of farmlands, enhancing the quality of the agricultural product, and improving the economic efficiency of farming practices.
Because farming cannot always occur under optimal plant growth conditions, many agronomists focus on the utilization of marginal habitats and problems occurring in the less industrialized countries. These include conditions such as fields under frequent water deficiency, where dry-land farming practices can be utilized, and farming on nutrient-poor soils. Others seek to make plants grow under saline * conditions, in extremely hot or cold environments, or in habitats with abbreviated growing seasons. Many of these challenges can be resolved through traditional plant breeding or the application of biotechnology.
These scientifically based aspects of the profession require undergraduate college study. In the United States, this is frequently at federally established land-grant universities. Many of these individuals become farm managers or owners or county agricultural agents, or they work in industry or the federal government. Students interested in these subjects need to follow a college preparatory track focusing on science, computer, and writing skills and, where possible, courses covering practices in business and agriculture. Internships or applied experience in agricultural operations can provide practical information that is very useful in making career decisions. Furthermore, the continually increasing emphasis on scientific research by agronomists provides opportunities for trained scientists to contribute to the growth of knowledge in agronomy. Master's degree and doctorate programs can be entered as a continuation of undergraduate applied study or after attaining liberal arts degrees, particularly in biology or geology with an emphasis on soil science.
In common parlance, any person who has something to do with raising and managing forest timber resources is in some sense a forester. Foresters go back in history to individuals responsible for managing the harvest of trees on the property of castles and estates and for the management and disposition of the valuable timber asset. Their intuition, practical experience, and natural history knowledge contributed greatly to decision-making.
*saline of, or relating to, salt
In the twenty-first century, the field has changed, and for the most part, a professional forester has a college education and academic credentials, ranging from an associate's degree in forest technology to a graduate degree from a school of forestry with specialization in a particular subject area. In addition to the traditional implements of forestry such as shovels, axes, meter sticks, and cruising prisms (which allow the rapid estimation of the number of board feet of timber in a wood lot), foresters now Page 163 | Top of Articledepend on global positioning systems, computer models, and sophisticated research tools in their work. These are used to evaluate such properties of the forest as the quality of wood, the site conditions of the habitat, and the fire susceptibility during dry seasons.
Many tasks performed by foresters involve applications of silviculture * , chemistry, plant physiology, and biotechnology. Some professional areas (e.g., forest and paper engineering and scientific resource management) require quantitative skills whereas others (e.g., forest biochemistry, natural products chemistry, and forest ecology) depend on an extensive basic science background. The work environment can be a private practice as a consulting forester, or it can be with industries, government, or academic institutions. Although much of the work time is spent outdoors in forests, office and laboratory work is also often involved. As is the case with virtually all professions, strong writing, verbal, and management skills all place an individual in a favorable position for advancement.
Horticulturists find work in two distinct areas: agriculture and landscape design. The training for both of these specialties is the same, but the day-to-day activities are different. People with a bachelor of science degree in botany, biology, or agriculture may find employment as horticulturists after college. A strong training in the basic sciences, especially chemistry and biology, is necessary.
An agricultural horticulturist is responsible for investigating the best techniques for managing the aboveground aspects of agriculture. These include pruning, mulching, trellising, plant spacing, and pollination. His or her partners in this endeavor are the agronomist, who is concerned with fertilization, irrigation, and drainage, and the integrated pest manager, who is concerned with plant pathogens * and pests. Each must know the essentials of the others' fields, and all must work together to produce profitable food and fiber crops.
The landscape horticulturist is concerned with all aspects of plant growth, including aboveground aspects and fertilization, irrigation, and drainage. The landscape horticulturist must also have training in art and architecture. It is essential to know the requirements of decorative plants. Horticulturists work for commercial nurseries; schools or businesses with a “campus” or landscaped grounds; entertainment centers such as theme parks; and local, state, and federal governmental agencies (e.g., public works departments) for the creation of green spaces and color spots along highways, in city parks, or in residential areas.
*silviculture cultivation of forest trees
*pathogen disease-causing organism
Wildlife biologists are scientists who study wild animals to understand how they interact with other animals and their habitat. They may also Page 164 | Top of Articlemanipulate wildlife populations and their habitats (e.g., by planting food sources) in an effort to conserve these valuable resources. The job of a wildlife biologist involves various outdoor activities such as observing, capturing, and measuring animals or measuring and manipulating their habitats. An equally important part of the job involves developing management plans; collecting and analyzing data; documenting activities; and communicating with other professionals and the public. Private landowners occasionally hire wildlife biologists, but most are employed by federal or state fish and game agencies (e.g., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service). In addition to a solid foundation in biology, a wildlife biologist needs a good background in chemistry and mathematics (especially statistics) and must be able to clearly communicate orally and in writing. Anyone interested in a career as a wildlife biologist should earn a bachelor's degree in wildlife management and should also gain experience through part-time or seasonal employment in the field. Opportunities for career advancement are significantly enhanced by earning a master's degree, and those individuals interested in research should consider acquiring a doctoral degree (PhD).
A zoologist is a scientist who studies animals, whether slugs or spiders, rattlesnakes or ravens. Most zoologists work at universities where they often also teach biology. Others work as government biologists (e.g., for the Forest Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Still others work for nonprofit environmental organizations or private companies that do environmental impact reports. A few write about science for the public.
Zoologists may study animals in a laboratory or in the wild. For example, a zoologist might go to Africa several times a year to study the social behavior of hyenas. The zoologist catches individual hyenas and puts collars on them that carry radio transmitters. Each transmitter emits a different signal; therefore, the zoologist always knows the location of each hyena. This not only allows the researcher to map the movements of each animal, but it also allows them to find the animal when necessary.
Zoologists also breed animals in captivity. In captivity, animals rarely behave the same way that they do in the wild, but it is easier to do experiments under controlled conditions. Whether in the laboratory or in the field, zoologists study the behavior, evolution, ecology, and physiology of animals. Many zoologists study how one species interacts with another or how plants and animals “coevolve.” Zoologists who study behavior or physiology often study animals mainly in a laboratory.
Almost all zoologists have at least a bachelor's degree in biology, zoology, ecology, or a similar field. Many zoologists have a master of arts or a master of science degree. University and college professors almost Page 165 | Top of Articlealways have a PhD. Zoologists who work for the government often must pass an exam in a field such as wildlife biology. High school students interested in a career in zoology should take math classes through calculus and explore nearby natural areas, learning the names of the plants and animals.
John H. Roese
Big Future by The College Board. “Career: Environmental Scientists.” https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/careers/environmentenvironmental-scientists
“Executive Learnt the Value of Water Early.” The Age (Melbourne, Australia), August 8, 2015: 36.