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Featured Scientist - Rod Walton

From the Fall 1996 sciencelines

Rod Walton began working at Fermilab in 1991. He states his goal as an Environmental Biologist is "to evaluate proposed projects, and if and when possible to make the projects better environmentally, to allow the project to work with the environment and to have less impact on the environment." Rod came to run the National Environmental Research Park, NERP and to manage the National Environmental Policy Act programs, to apply science-based evaluation of proposed projects to assure that federal money is not spent in environmentally inappropriate ways.

Please describe your position with Fermilab.

I am the Associate Section Head for Environment, Safety and Assurance. This consists of 18 staff people responsible for the central environmental protection activities including Industrial Health and Safety, Training, Quality Assurance, Environmental Permits and Monitoring and Regulated Chemical and Hazardous Waste.

Tell us more about the environmental research at Fermilab regarding the prairie and wetland areas.

The National Environmental Research Park is a Deparmemt of Energy program that has three current experiments. University of California-Irvine is researching the genetics of plant-herbivore interactions, specifically goldenrod resistance to insects. The experiment is studying the evolution of plant defenses to insects. This experiment has been in progress since 1988. Argonne National Laboratory has been studying the community ecology of the prairie.This experiment has been ongoing for over ten years, studying the soil, biomass and nutrient turnover. Northern Illinois University is studying small mammal populations and their relationship to predators. This experiment has been underway for at least three years. The National Environmental Research Park is an unfunded program and these experiments are funded either directly by the researcher's institution or through a granting agency, such as the National Science Foundation.

Monitoring and permitting are important in the areas of surface and ground water issues. The Environmental Protection Group conducts monitoring of water, sampling and testing for radionuclides and heavy metals.They also conduct testing of wells in the Laboratory property to assure that we are leaving the property uncontaminated. This group assures that we meet the requirements of the permitting agency, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

The construction of the Main Injector brought many environmental issues into play. Ten acres of newly created wetland replaced six acres displaced by the construction, and in compliance with the permitting, we will study this area for five years. The types of plants define and document a wetland area. The timing of the planting and successive wet summers have been good for successful establishment of the new wetland area.

During the tunneling of the Main Injector project, it came to our attention that a Cooper's Hawk, at that time on the Illinois endangered wildlife list, was nesting in an area where a road was to go through. A Fermilab team coordinated the timing to allow for the young in the nest to be undisturbed to the point that they were able to leave the nest. We felt very good about this, especially since Illinois has recently taken this species off the endangered list.

What positions did you hold before Fermilab?

After earning an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and a Master's degree in Zoology I worked in Mt. Vernon, Ohio as an Environmental and Chemical Laboratory Director. In this position I supervised the testing of drinking water and management of sewage plants, in addition to other environmentally related issues. I was an instructor at Roosevelt University and Northern Illinois University. Teaching was rewarding in some ways but I did not want to do that for the rest of my life. From 1989 to 1991, I worked with the USEPA Region V. I worked with the state of Michigan to develop their wetland protection program which has a very good reputation.

Please tell us a little about your exposure to science and math in school and what sparked your interest in this type of career?

I went to school in a small southern Indiana town and experienced a very traditional method of science teaching. I do remember having a young physics teacher in high school who encouraged us to do some activities.

The strongest influence was the time during which I was in school. This was during the 50's and 60's in the Sputnik era when people were moving into these careers. I recall always being interested. As an undergraduate student in chemistry in the 70's, I recall reading Konrad Lorenz's books about animal behavior. A professor I knew persuaded me to pursue a Master's degree in Zoology.

What is your hope for the future?

We grew up in a time when there were no laws protecting the environment. But, I am optimistic because even with two years of a conservative Congress we are seeing that people do not want to decrease their concern for the environment. We need to understand our world as a resource and as a source. It is a source of inspiration, a sense of place. We need to become better stewards and better landlords.

What advice would you give to students?

I would like to see education, especially for college students, be broadened and more applied. Science should not be taught in a vacuum. Literature, economics, philosophy and the sciences should become integrated. You see the shift that people have to make from education to application and you wish to do people a favor - to take the next step.

Learning is more than abstracts - it is physical. It is embedded in a whole culture. I would tell students to continue to learn more about the environment and about their responsibility to our world. I'd advise students to dabble in everything.