From AmeriCorps to NSF to EPA: MNR student Bridget Johnson is committed to promoting sustainability and environmental justice
December 21, 2021
By Lindsay Key
Even though Bridget Johnson is an employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she found the global lens of her studies immensely valuable, enabling her to compare and contrast her work at the EPA to other governmental environmental organizations around the world. “Recently I took the course International Environmental Law and Policy, and that really gave me a broader international context for what I’m learning at the EPA,” says Bridget. She started the MNR program in 2020 and expects to graduate in 2023.
Bridget has a bachelor’s degree in ecology and natural resources from Rutgers University. After graduation, she worked as a research technician for Michigan State University, conducting plant surveys in a longleaf pine forest near the Savannah River in South Carolina.
Bringing research experience to public service
In 2014, Bridget enlisted in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, which placed her in Billings, Montana. There, she worked with the Billings Housing Authority Community Gardens Project to manage and expand services to three community garden sites and a “bucket garden” program for low-income communities in the city.
“Pockets of food insecurity, or food deserts, disproportionately harm low-income communities, and this program served as one strategy to combat this unequal distribution of resources,” says Bridget. In her role with AmeriCorps, she also wrote and successfully secured a Global Youth Service Day grant from the Montana Governor’s Office of Community Service, collaborated with local businesses and organizations to organize such events as “Farm to Table” dinners and a city-wide “Parade of Gardens” tour, and coordinated recruitment and management of over 100 volunteers.
Cultivating a global perspective
Bridget’s positive experience with AmeriCorps convinced her that she wanted to continue working in public service, and she enlisted in the U.S. Peace Corps from 2015 to 2017, living and serving in Paraguay. Working as an agricultural extension volunteer, she focused on promoting food security and production among the families in her community.
“After living in Paraguay for two years, I developed strong connections with families in my community, learned a great deal about farming and rural life, and became familiar with Paraguayan culture. I left with a far deeper understanding of the challenges of sustainable development work. Serving in the Peace Corps was the hardest thing I’ve done, both professionally and personally, but it was an incredibly valuable experience,” she says.
Advancing science at the federal level
After returning home, Bridget knew that she wanted to continue to work for the U.S. federal government. She was a program assistant, and then a program specialist, for the National Science Foundation from 2018 to 2020, where she provided administrative support for the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.
In December 2020, Bridget joined the EPA as a life scientist in the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division, Region 9. In her new role, she is training as an inspector and case developer in the enforcement of the Clean Air Act Section 112(r), the Chemical Accident Prevention Program.
“On average, hundreds of accidents at facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals happen each year in the U.S., and such incidents pose threats to public health and the environment. In my role, I help inspect facilities that store such chemicals to ensure they are in compliance with governmental regulations and industry standards in order to reduce the risk of chemical accidents,” says Bridget.
Improving understanding of climate change and environmental justice
As an inspector in the Chemical Accident Prevention Program, Bridget focuses mostly on facilities that use ammonia refrigeration. “It’s really interesting to me because ammonia is a good refrigerant in terms of the climate—it’s not a greenhouse gas and it doesn’t harm the ozone,” she explains. “But the downside is that it is very toxic to people who come into contact with it, so proper precautions must be in place.”
“As a federal employee, I am hoping to assist with the new administration’s reinvigorated commitments to address climate change and environmental justice in whatever way I can,” she emphasizes.