Meet former ORAU Employee Victoria Kurker. Victoria started her career as an ORAU National Student Services Contractor working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an Ecotoxicology Research Support Associate in Duluth, MN. Victoria was researching pesticide impacts and how they affect bird and fish species. Recently, Victoria accepted a full-time job as a federal employee at the EPA in Arlington, VA. Congratulations Victoria!
In the aquatic arena, she conducted live lab studies, testing the dose response of certain pesticides on fathead minnows. When she started, she was doing a lot of biology research support (fish care), but she was able to train under the retiring chemist. When the chemist retired, Victoria became the sole chemist on her team. Her duties included creating chemical stocks, verifying that the tanks were getting the correct dosage of pesticide, and analyzing the effects of the pesticide on the fish. Victoria discovered that she enjoys chemistry much more than biology because she likes mathematical analysis and chemical samples don’t misbehave like live fish sometimes do! These pesticide studies matter because Victoria and her team are currently looking at neonicotinoids, the class of pesticides associated with the collapse of bee populations. By understanding these pesticides and their impacts on fish, other groups and risk assessors can determine how to further regulate pesticide usage.
In the avian arena, Victoria conducted similar work, determining how bird populations are impacted by toxins, specifically pesticides, using the Markov Chain Nest Productivity Model (MCnest). The model, developed by her EPA mentor Matthew Etterson, uses the breeding success of birds (nest survival and failure probabilities) to calculate estimated chemical exposure impacts on their populations. This research is important because scientists cannot expose birds in the field, especially threatened and endangered species, to pesticides to see how their populations are impacted.
Victoria’s new role as a federal employee at the EPA will be as a biologist! She will be working for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in the Office of Pesticides Programs, in Arlington, VA. Broadly, she will be working on pesticide risk assessments. This could include writing scientific evaluations related to the impacts of pesticide use, conducting exposure analyses to support risk assessments, and applying federal laws and regulations to pesticide management use. Her pesticide work experience while a part of the EPA NSSC program made her an ideal candidate for the position.
“I am going to miss Minnesota in general and all the friendships I’ve made here. Moving halfway across the country to a place you had never heard of before, and not knowing anyone, is a difficult but rewarding experience. I have made life-long friends here and consider it home now. (I will also definitely miss the cheap rent.) I am most excited to start a federal career for the EPA in Arlington, VA in a place I have always wanted to live, with a job I’ve always wanted to have. I am excited to work on the assessment side of science, taking research and really seeing it applied and making a difference in the public health of communities.”
Victoria’s father worked for the US Air Force. She decided at an early age her career path would take her to the federal government just like him. She became aware of climate change and other environmental issues. She was determined to solve these problems. This determination focused her college education on the human health impacts of climate change and chemical pollution. Victoria graduated from University of Massachusetts Lowell in 2017, with a BS in Biological Sciences and a minor in Environmental Health.
While at Umass Lowell, she participated in several professional experiences. Through a community co-op scholarship, she volunteered for a summer project testing antibiotics on superbugs to find an antibiotic that was universal to a variety of the superbugs. She also worked as an undergraduate researcher, coauthoring an article for World Climate, a climate change negotiations role play game for climate education.
These experiences solidified what Victoria ultimately wanted to gain, and give, from her career. “My work at the US Army solidified my desire to work for the government because I wanted to work for the benefit of the community and the United States as a whole. My undergrad research solidified my desire to teach and spark motivation to address climate change and environmental problems. My goal is to reduce someone’s suffering and worry by ensuring that they have a safe and clean environment to live in. I want to make an impact, no matter how small, in preventing people from getting sick from their environment.”
After graduating, she continued taking math and computer modeling courses. Victoria learned that ORAU offered entry level jobs at the EPA through the National Student Service Contract (NSSC) program. With her dream of becoming a federal employee temporarily on hold due to a hiring freeze, she turned her eye to an EPA NSSC job in Duluth, MN which involved computer modeling and live fish studies. “I eventually became confident enough to apply and move so far away from home and it was the best decision I have made. I was able to transition to chemistry support out of need on our team, which I enjoy a lot more than biology and am better at. The opportunities at MED (Mid-continent Ecology Division) and the supportive work environment has made this job one of my favorites.”