Jonathan Clough is an environmental computer consultant based out of Warren, Vt.

Monday, 22 Jul 2002

WARREN, Vt.

The first thing you should know about a week in the life of an environmental modeler is that it is remarkably glamorous. Straight up glamour. Glamorous enough that 14-year-old girls write me fan mail and ask for help getting started in a career as a modeler.

Okay, I really should admit that this only happened to me once — last week, in fact. Given that the girl in question was actually trying to become a fashion model, she turns out to have been a bit misguided in her Internet quest. (Let’s hope that her future net searches turn up more productive, though equally benign, email partners.)

I also should admit that waking up and commuting across the hall to the little room with my computers does not fit many people’s definitions of glamorous. Perhaps “hermit-like” would be more appropriate. The severity of Monday morning is upon me so forgive me if I have stretched the truth a little bit. Given that the Red Sox dropped two 9-8 heart breakers in a row to the hated Yankees, a little poetic license to improve the author’s mood seems warranted.

Anyway, I spend my workdays making and applying computer models of environmental systems, primarily as a consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of my work for the past six years has been in producing models of water systems and the effects that various toxins have on the critters that live in the water. If that doesn’t inspire a young girl’s heart, I don’t know what would. (That may actually explain my social status in junior high, but that’s a completely different story.)

Generally, what our computer models try to do is to integrate specialized scientific studies into a larger framework so that difficult policy decisions can be made. Often times, public policy makers want to answer questions about complex environmental systems — complex enough that the answers aren’t necessarily intuitive. While scientists may have studied many unique aspects of the situation, these studies, taken in isolation, do not answer the question at hand. Environmental models provide a framework to integrate each of the relevant scientific studies into a single result that is useful to policy-makers. And that’s where I come in. Somebody’s got to be the computer geek on these projects.

Lately I have been spending most of my time modeling a fairly high-profile site in which a company dumped many tons of PCBs in or near a river from the 1930s to the 1970s. Some questions about the site can be answered without the help of modeling. Should the most polluted areas within the site be cleaned up? The answer is obviously yes. But when the question becomes, “How many miles downstream should the company clean?” the answer is not immediately clear — and hundreds of millions of dollars are suddenly at stake. This is where our environmental models come into play. These models try to discern what would happen under different cleanup scenarios and what would happen if those downstream miles were not cleaned up. Given the dollar amount on the line and the near certainty of litigation in this case, I’m afraid that I can’t really say too much more about that project here, so I’d better return to the travails of the present day.

Travails: a gray and foggy Monday morning, those discouraging Red Sox losses, a broken-down car, a mid-summer cold. Happily, the birds are singing outside my open windows, and they’re rapidly improving my mood — especially the hermit thrush. Did I mention that I live in rural Vermont? I have been working from home for the past six years, which enables me to choose where I live while keeping my job intact. This seems like a fairly unique benefit in the history of employment. The absence of a commute is certainly a wonderful timesaver. But there are drawbacks as well. I’ll get to those later. After all, I have diary entries to write all week.

And here, noble reader, is where you are in luck. This week of writing diary entries for Grist coincides with an intensive week of data mining! Being an environmental modeler requires an intimate relationship with all kinds of empirical data and this week I am tasked to have my hands elbow deep in the cow, so to speak. (Such colorful colloquialisms prove that Vermont living is starting to rub off on me.) Stay tuned for such exciting episodes as:

  • Units mayhem!
  • Where are the data quandaries?!
  • Data entry glitches!

Actually, I promise it will be more interesting than that. Umm. I’ll try anyway. Stay tuned.