Sharon Kenny

Sharon D. Kenny

Title
Environmental Engineer
Organization
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Location
Bala Cynwyd, PA, United States
Sharon Kenny
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Biography
Sharon D. Kenny has over 10 years of experience in the environmental field, with particular expertise in the fields of hazardous chemicals and site remediation. She has directed projects related to compliance assistance; health and safety auditing; and land contamination for numerous industrial sectors, including manufacturing (coil coating, plating, foundries), water treatment, and federal facilities. Sharon has extensive experience in research, and has worked for several organizations, including National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She is currently employed as a Remedial Project Manager in the Land and Chemicals Division of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Sharon holds a bachelor’s degree in Geology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez; and two master’s degrees: one in Geochemistry from the University of Florida at Gainesville, and a second one in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is certified as a Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM) and as a Project Management Professional (PMP).
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Sharon D. Kenny

Valeria, hello!  Thank you for the chance to reach out to you, and hopefully, to many other students experiencing similar challenges.

I had the opportunity to explore diverse career paths in the environmental field through my participation in various internships.  Nothing beats having a 10-week hands-on experience developing differential equations for modeling water vapor in the troposphere to realize that programming is absolutely not for me.  I strongly encourage you to pursue a few co-op opportunities as soon as you can.

Valeria, did you already take Physical Chemistry?  How about Dynamics or Hydraulic Engineering?  These are, among many others, very difficult courses that will consume all your waking hours, and then some.  So to deal with the pursuit of a career that is inherently challenging, I recommend the following:

  1.  Have an unbiased self-analysis on how you are spending your time and get rid of things that are extraneous;
  2. Find a study partner and get together on a regular basis;
  3. Sign up for 1 to 1 tutoring at the Center for Academic Success; and
  4. Visit your professor regularly during his office hours.

Hello Sierra. These are great questions you are asking, and at the perfect time. Let’s get right to it:

1) What sort of classes should I take in high school to prepare for this field?

I think you should focus on taking as many courses in sciences and math as you can. If your school offers honors and Advanced Placement (AP) levels, I strongly suggest you enroll in as many as is comfortable. But it is also very important to be a well-rounded student. So be sure to include some classes that will add to you as a person and an engineer. Philosophy, writing, and a foreign language are all excellent options.

I went to a very poor school district in Puerto Rico, with limited electives. A course I wish had been offered in my high school was computer programming, as it would have helped me out in my college career.

2) What kind of college course(s) and degree would be optimal for a successful job in environmental engineering?

The most potent degree is Chemical Engineering with Environmental Engineering electives. Be prepared; it is very challenging, but you will be head and shoulders over your peers in the market. If you follow this route, the more intense focus on chemistry will give you superior knowledge when analyzing contaminant transport and remediation techniques. In other words, you will be able to observe with more accuracy any environmental problem you may encounter.

In addition to the required courses, such as Engineering Design, Fluid Dynamics, and Environmental Chemistry, try to add Groundwater Hydrology, Hazardous Materials Management, and Air Pollution for an understanding of all media: water, air, and land.

I have a degree in Civil Engineering, but most of my classes had an environmental focus. The courses I have used the most in my career, in addition to the ones I mentioned before, are the following: Environmental Toxicology, Groundwater Modeling, Risk Analysis, and Water Reuse.

3) As an environmental engineer, what sort of tasks/ obligations do you have?

As a civil servant, I have the obligation to protect human health and the environment by ensuring adequacy of cleanup activities under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) corrective action program. I manage and direct all technical and engineering work conducted at assigned RCRA facilities, including investigations and remediation. I develop cleanup strategies and schedules to meet legal mandates; manage and direct the work for issuing hazardous waste permits; and assist EPA’s counsel office in defending legal challenges to a permit. I also provide guidance and policy to stakeholders on RCRA and Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) issues, communicate technical information verbally to varied audiences, and ensure the proper storage, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste.

4) What kind of company is best to work at for an environmental engineer?

It is not who you are working for, but what you are doing. If you are engaged in projects that are important to you, then the name or type of the company is not significant. 

I have worked with many kinds of companies: research institutions, private corporations, consulting firms, state government, federal agencies, and not-for-profit organizations. The most important factor for all of them was what I was doing.

5) What kind of college is best for an aspiring environmental engineer?

I think that most universities in the USA will provide you a sound education in engineering. When choosing a university, just make sure that the engineering program has been accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

My three favorite universities are the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the École polytechnique (also known as X) in Palaiseau, France.

6) What things can I do now to prepare for this field?

Other than the standards, such as volunteer work and internships, get in contact with local environmental organizations and find out what help is needed locally. This will give you experience in the real world with very little pressure; and it will help you to “think globally, act locally.”

 

Hello Cailyn, It is so great to know that there are girls like you and me, who absolutely love math! Oh, your words in your message made my day! You are right: environmental engineering is an exciting career! Having the responsibility of helping the earth and its environment is an awesome job to have; I have been doing it for over 10 years, and I enjoy every minute of it. If interested in what I do as an environmental engineer, I invite you to watch a career presentation I gave online for the GLOBE program. You can find the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWyhdhONKVg, from 06:10 to 28:35.

1. The starting salary varies significantly with the sector that hires you. For example, a private consulting firm like CH2M Hill or Tetra Tech could pay an annual starting salary around 50,000 USD while an oil and gas corporation could provide double that amount. The federal government also hires environmental engineers, and those who have little or no work experience would be hired under the GS-05 annual rate, which is 35,657 USD for the first year. If you graduate with honors or you acquired some work experience while studying for your bachelors degree, you could be hired as a GS-07 and earn 44,176 USD your first year. (http://apps.opm.gov/SpecialRates/2012/Table041401012012. aspx).

2. The universities that have engineering degrees accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) follow a curriculum that includes courses such as calculus-based physics, chemistry, differential equations, air pollution, economics, fluid mechanics, engineering design, computer programming, among others. The following URLs correspond to the undergraduate curriculum for a bachelors degree in environmental engineering at different universities:

3. I think that the most important trait a person can have for pursuing a degree in engineering is perseverance. Willingness to try and try again is essential to succeeding in anything, including engineering. Other personality traits include self-discipline, secure high self esteem, and self-motivation. You will need to develop analytical skills, attention to detail, and confidence. Last but not least, it is important to practice integrity, tolerance, and possess a strong work ethic.

4. I think it is very important to become a wholesome person as you move forward towards your goals of becoming an environmental engineer. As important as it is to take as many AP courses as possible when you start high school while maintaining excellent grades, it is critical that you also join school activities and clubs. Take on leadership roles within those clubs, learn a new language, play an instrument, exercise and do sports, and volunteer as much as possible at your school and your community.

Hello Salma,

My sincere apologies for the delay in answering your question. Looks like something might had happened that did not allow the answer to be recorded and saved.

So here it goes again:

Congratulations on your graduation! I hope you are excited to start applying to the real world the knowledge you acquired during all those years of studying. You will soon see that a degree in chemical engineering will open the doors for you in many industries and sectors, as well as in the Environmental field. My recommendation is for you to search opportunities that will allow you to solve problems related to the environment, either by means of a full time work or volunteering. I think that the most important thing will be for you to interact with other Environmental Engineers and Scientists in the field, the lab, or even in the bar. Yes, there are numerous societies and organizations that sponsor networking events and volunteering opportunities that may help you reach your goals (e.g., Engineers without Borders, AIChE, Society of Women Engineers).

The specialization are numerous: hazardous waste management; environmental health and safety; land remediation; water treatment; air pollution; sustainability, groundwater contaminant modeling... Perhaps you should give me a bit more of background to see what your interests are before I make this list comprehensive!

Best Regards,
Sharon

Hello Maddie, 

Thank you for reaching out to me. I will be very honored to contribute to your research. 

1. The three courses I took that are closely related to my career:

Hazardous and Industrial Waste Management - Class provided an understanding of remedial design and clean-up technologies for contaminated land
Environmental Toxicology - Learned to analyze exposure data and toxicity data of chemicals in order to assess human health risks and potential ecological damage
Groundwater Modeling -  Studied mathematical and numerical techniques to develop computer models that solve water flow and chemical transport problems in groundwater engineering (e.g., aquifer remediation design)

2. The most challenging courses I took:

Uncertainty and Risk Analysis - Learned the approach towards probability, statistics, and stochastic models under the discipline of engineering. Course very dependent on programming, so I had difficulties due to the lack of experience with Maple, a technical computing software

Environmental Microbiology - Course provided a comprehensive study of the biochemical physiology of microbes, including microbial ecology and bioenergetics. Usually, engineering students do not take biology courses, so my previous exposure to this topic was very limited. To catch up, I spent numerous hours studying basic biology as it relates to the growth, metabolism, physiology, and genetics of bacteria and viruses. The time invested in the additional study payed off, as I was able to fully comprehend the role of bacteria in engineering applications such as bioremediation, disinfection processes, bioaerosol characterization, inactivation of airborne pathogens, and microbially-induced corrosion.

3. Methods used to succeed in college:

A rigid adhesion to time management; i.e., being punctual and never procrastinating, handing projects on time, following a daily schedule, and doing self evaluations

Intentional inclusion in extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, volunteering as a STEM mentor)

If you have additional questions, feel free to send me an email or give me a call.

Best Regards,

Sharon