How to Become an Environmental Scientist

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Dr. Dingsheng Li, Assistant Professor at the School of Public Health, University of Nevada, Reno

Understanding how chemicals have become an integral part of our lives and, at the same time, how toxic they can be to our lives is at the core of what it takes to become an environmental scientist. Chemicals are present everywhere. Synthetically manufactured, we have created them to help us cook our food, keep ourselves clean and safeguard our furniture against allergens and insects.

Dr. Dingsheng Li, Assistant Professor in the School of Public Health (on-campus) at the University of Nevada, Reno, has made it his life’s mission to assess chemical toxicity in these spheres and to discover more thorough, timely and inexpensive ways that chemicals can be assessed for safety. Li argues that too many chemicals or a misuse of toxic chemicals can threaten public safety.

Part of what environmental health scientists like Li do is track these chemicals to keep us safe. Environmental health scientists and specialists are continually studying our natural world — air, water, food and earth — collecting and analyzing information so that they can both detect toxic chemical exposure and create programs to prevent future exposure to keep the public and the planet safe. Graduates of our online Master of Public Health program develop the skills and knowledge base needed to protect the public from harmful exposure to chemicals.

Dr. Li on Chemical Exposure and Risk

Professor Li’s research has made him an authority on chemical exposure and risk. While exposure denotes the degree to which the public encounters a certain chemical, risk the probability of harm as a result of both exposure and toxicity. Li notes, “You need to multiply the level of toxicity by the amount of exposure in order to accurately assess risk. A chemical could be extremely toxic, but if the consumer isn’t being exposed to it, then there is no risk.” For example, extremely hazardous materials that might be used in a laboratory or at a nuclear plant would be deemed no risk if the public has virtually no exposure to them.

But what about those everyday products that people use? Professor Li notes several challenges facing environmental scientists. As discussed in “Flourinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging,” researchers tested more than 400 samples of paper wrappers, paperboard and beverage cups from 27 fast food chains, determining that fluorinated chemicals, which are harmful to people, were present.

“When you order fast food, the burger is often wrapped up and the fries come in a cardboard box,” explains Li. “The researchers looked at that packaging and found that with no exception, in everything they tested, there was something called PFASs [persistent synthetic chemicals].” Likewise, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been pushing hard to regulate PFAS in an effort to keep the public safer. In 2018, for example, the EPA hosted a summit meeting in Washington, D.C. aimed at addressing the challenges posed by PFAS.

Responsibilities of an Environmental Scientist

Studying chemicals that may be present in food packaging is just one example of the kind of report that an environmental scientist would create. Responsibilities in this profession can also include studying particular land masses and waterways that may have been contaminated by pollution; looking at new building projects to make sure there are no chemical toxicity issues; and working with both government and private businesses on standards and practices for manufacturing, ensuring that no toxic chemicals are being used. The career of an environmental scientists can include analyzing, researching and reporting; cleanup; and implementing and advising on new and current policies to protect public health.

Education Requirements, Salary and Job Growth Outlook for Environmental Scientists

Jobs growth and salary expectations for environmental scientists vary according to location, industry and level of experience. The following information provides a typical summary of what environmental scientists can expect.

Education requirements.

A bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a science-related field (biology, chemistry or engineering) is needed for an entry-level job such as a field analyst or research assistant. For more advanced positions, such as project leader or program manager, a master’s degree is often required. Further degrees can open opportunities as researchers or faculty at colleges and universities. Most colleges offering environmental science programs include an internship that enables students to gain field experience prior to entering the workforce.

Salary and job growth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “employment of environmental scientists and specialists is projected to grow 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than average for all occupations.” The BLS also reports that the median annual salary for environmental scientists or specialists was about $71,000 in 2018, with the median salary for government environmental scientists and specialists at about $103,000.

Learn More About Becoming an Environmental Scientist

With so much attention now being given to chemical exposure from consumer products and other air, soil and water pollutants, not to mention general chemical risks within our homes, there couldn’t be a better time to explore a career as an environmental scientist or specialist. Check out the online MPH program at the University of Nevada, Reno, and get started on your own path to becoming an environmental scientist.


Recommended Readings

What Is Public Health?

Five Faculty Experts Share Public Health Insights for NPHW

University of Nevada, Reno Online Master of Public Health



Bureau of Labor Statistics, What Environmental Scientists and Specialists Do

Consumer Reports, “Harmful Chemicals Might Be Lurking in Fast-Food Packaging”

Environmental Science and Technology Letters, “Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging”

Silent Spring Institute, “Fast Food Packaging Contains Potentially Harmful Chemicals

United States Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS National Leadership Summit and Engagement