NEHA member, Lydia Zweimiller, REHS/RS, CP-FS, lives in the Washington D.C. metro area and works as an Environmental Health Specialist for the Architect of the Capitol at the United States Capitol. In her member spotlight interview, she talks about her unique career path, why she loves the field of environmental health, and the value of leadership.
NEHA: How did you get started in your environmental health career?
Lydia: When I graduated college with my B.S. in biology, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I studied biology because I loved science and learning about all of Earth’s incredible organisms. I hoped to help people with my knowledge and abilities, but the only work experience I had was several years of food service that I didn’t think was relevant to my future. I graduated in 2010 when the economy was suffering, and job opportunities were scarce for recent graduates. Even with limited knowledge of environmental health as a profession, I was able to get an entry-level job as an Environmental Health Technician at a local health department. At first, I mostly collected drinking water samples, but eventually, I learned about environmental and public health, became a Registered Environmental Health Specialist (REHS), and developed an interest in food safety. Looking back, I can see how my studies and experience came together and led me to the career I have today.
NEHA: What do you love most about working in this field?
Lydia: Environmental health is not something that the public thinks about every day, even though it’s critical in their daily lives. I often feel like an invisible force keeping people safe and healthy behind the scenes. The Environmental Health Specialist position is an intersection of hard sciences like biology and chemistry, with social sciences like psychology and sociology, which I find fascinating. I get to use my science nerdiness to help people in a tangible way!
I recently went from a supervisory position to a field-based position, which allows me to get back to what I really enjoy about environmental health: being the “boots on the ground” collecting samples, interpreting results, communicating with people, investigating, and working with others. I’m not just in the lab doing research or in the office doing paperwork; I’m in the field interacting with people every day. I can enact change on both a small and large scale to make a difference in people's lives.
One of my favorite aspects of environmental health field-work is being in the kitchen. I love eating food, making food, learning about food, and talking about food. As an Environmental Health Specialist, I have the opportunity to work with chefs who will often teach me about a new food and preparations. Learning new things, and being challenged, what keeps my position interesting.
NEHA: Why do you think being a member of NEHA is valuable?
Lydia: NEHA provides a platform for environmental health professionals to learn, network, and grow professionally. I think professional advancement is the main benefit for anyone looking to become a member. NEHA credentials provide and maintain standards for the various professions encompassed in environmental health that might not otherwise exist. Aside from professional growth via continuing education, NEHA provides opportunities for members to become involved in environmental health initiatives outside of their day to day job. I was a NEHA/UL Sabbatical Award winner and traveled to the UK to conduct a study of my own design. This would never have been possible for me without NEHA.
Being a member of NEHA allows you to stay involved and up to date in the world of environmental health.
NEHA: What are the most crucial environmental health issues facing your community, and what can NEHA do to help?
Lydia: I live in the Washington D.C. metro area, where there are many environmental health issues facing my community. One issue that I don’t work on directly in my position, but that weighs heavily on my mind, is environmental justice. It’s not a new issue, but one that continues to be pervasive everywhere in the United States and the world. Environmental risks and hazards disproportionately affect certain populations.
What NEHA can do to help is to continue to promote and lobby for initiatives and legislation that can make a difference in environmental health equity. NEHA can also provide more training and information on this topic as well as tools and resources for those looking to make a difference.
NEHA: What advice would you give to young professionals, or students, just starting out in their career?
Lydia: Take advantage of any opportunity to gain knowledge and experiences that will help you achieve your goals. Go to workshops, seminars, and conferences, and use those occasions to learn from and network with your peers. Talk to your teachers and senior co-workers and get involved with initiatives and committees in your workplace or school. Any leadership experience you can gain along the way is invaluable. You might think that you don't need leadership training if you're not going to be a manager, but leadership and management are not the same things. You can be a leader in whatever it is you do if you inspire others to be their best. Strive for that.
Become a member of the NEHA community.
If you live in the Washington D.C. area and want to connect with members like Lydia at the local level, consider getting involved with the National Capital Area Environmental Health Association.
If you, or a NEHA member you know, is interested in being a part of our Member Spotlight series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.