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Internships offer valuable experiences that will help protect the environment

July 19, 2019 – Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program interns learn job skills through hands-on projects.

Mickey Leland Environmental Internship program logo

What can a few interns do to protect the environment? Well it turns out, a lot! We followed four Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program interns this summer to find out what they are working on.

One intern is taking part in investigations, while another has his hands full developing a Nonpoint Source Program Public Viewer; another verifies and updates water-rights programs, and one evaluates emissions events.

These are four of the 127 MLEIP interns who are actively involved in interactive projects this summer.

Jenna Kieschnick, a senior Environmental Studies major at Texas A&M University

Jenna Kieschnick and fellow intern Tiara Kincade discuss both data and report information.
Jenna Kieschnick (left) and fellow intern Tiara Kincade discuss both data and report information.

Kieschnick became interested in applying for the MLEIP because she was looking for an internship related to her field of study. The internship with TCEQ matched perfectly with what she was looking for.

“I wanted an opportunity where I could help regulate, protect, or conserve the environment and natural resources. I also wanted something that was close to home [Austin], and would provide me with a great learning experience.”

Kieschnick talked to several people from one of her organizations at A&M who were Mickey Leland interns in the past, and they highly recommended that she apply.

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At the recent MLEIP conference, held on July 11, interns had the opportunity to hear from top TCEQ executives, including: Jon Niermann, TCEQ chairman; Toby Baker, TCEQ executive director; and various industry experts.

Chairman Niermann shared his experiences and interests with the interns and let them know that their work is important. “We need you to help us do the work to protect the environment,” he said. He also let them know that it’s okay to stumble, because that is all part of being excellent. He encouraged them to “advocate and use your mind and voice to talk about issues critical to you.”

The industry representatives took part in a moderated employer panel addressing the topic of “Launching Your Career.” The panel was moderated by Ryan Vise, director of TCEQ’s External Relations Division. The panel included Ed Zarecky, Oncor Electric Delivery; Jennifer Adams, W&M Environmental; and Meghan Miller Pier, Jackson Walker L.L.P.

During this panel discussion, industry experts shared many tips and advice with the interns. Miller emphasized to the interns how important it is to “pursue paths that take you to your interest.” She added that “it’s important to find the company culture that’s a good fit for you. Build experiences and network. You never know who can help you and get you in the right direction.”

Adams echoed Miller’s words by affirming that building experiences and using connections are keys to success. She added that it’s very important to understand your company’s path, and to talk to people in the organization you work for.

Zarecky basically told interns that the sky is the limit. “Don’t limit yourself. Learn how to set goals. Start by setting short-term goals that help you learn the framework and expertise you need. Find out who can help you.”

All panel members strongly agreed on one thing: network, network, network.

“Along with the rest of the water-rights permitting team, I am conducting a review of all of the water-rights permits and making sure all data fields are filled in correctly in the Surface Water Rights Database. This project is part of a map-viewer project that all of the Water Rights Section is working on. The viewer will be available for use by the public,” says Kieschnick.

“I am learning how to read water-rights permits and learning the process that the permits go through to get issued. I also figured out that the traffic in Austin is terrible no matter what day or time it is,” she adds laughing.

Kieschnick hopes to gain job experience related to her field of study, the ability to apply what she learns in the classroom to her job, and make professional connections as a result of her internship experience.

A typical day for her consists of working on her project all day. “There are a lot of permits to get through—around 7,000,” she exclaims. However, on occasion she gets to break away and attend a team meeting to discuss the project or attend a presentation from one of the other divisions within TCEQ.

When asked if she would encourage others to apply to be an intern with the MLEIP, Kieschnick responded, “Yes, absolutely! I would tell other potential interns that this internship program is fantastic. You meet so many great people, and there are so many sections and divisions within the agency that you’re bound to find something that interests you. The MLEIP is a great learning opportunity because not only do you get to learn about the section of TCEQ that you work for, but you gain an understanding of how different divisions come together to ensure that both the environment and citizens of Texas are protected.”

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Alexia Reyes, a junior Geological Science major at the University of Texas at El Paso

Alexia Reyes investigating a complaint regarding a landfill in Sierra Blanca, TX.
Alexia Reyes investigating a complaint regarding a landfill in Sierra Blanca, TX.

Reyes has a great opportunity working on many aspects of the environmental enforcement process during her internship with the Region 6 - El Paso office.

“I took part in two emergency responses: a sanitary sewer overflow, and an industrial hazardous waste incident. The first emergency response was onsite at a wastewater spill where a manhole located in an alley, directly behind a few homes, was overflowing. The second emergency response was at one of the local refineries where a large amount of petroleum was discharged,” Reyes explained.

During these two responses, Reyes played an active role, assisting the lead investigator by taking photographs of the sites and asking questions of the responsible party and those associated with the sites being investigated.

She also worked independently on two investigative reports regarding a municipal solid waste investigation and a water quality issue. Both were emergency responses; the MSW investigation was associated with a garbage truck that caught fire and leaked hydraulic oil into the soil, while the WQ incident was an overflow of sewage at a wastewater treatment plant.

As part of the MSW investigation, Reyes’ mentor showed her how to create an incident report in the agency’s data system. This process includes generating an investigation and incident number for identifying the report.

Throughout the investigation, the contact for the regulated entity reached out to Reyes and asked for guidance on the remediation of the spill, and requested that investigators be onsite to decide where to take samples of the impacted soil. Reyes continued to communicate with the contact via email and over the phone. This is still an ongoing investigation and her team is waiting for lab results on the samples.

As part of the WQ investigation, Reyes’ mentor taught her how to create the investigation report on her own, while still giving her some guidance.

Reyes also had the opportunity to engage with the community by taking part in two outreach efforts — one of which was at an elementary school, where she and her fellow investigators served as presenters at a career day event.

Reyes says, “We presented on the duties of the TCEQ. We gave the students examples of investigations such as diesel spills on the interstate, a property filled with nearly 20,000 tires, and dust produced by a rock crushing facility. The students were shown the MultiRae, which is a tool used by investigators to detect VOC’s [volatile organic compounds] in the air.”

The other community outreach activity was a visit to a local daycare. She explains, “At the daycare we presented the children with a board which included photos of field investigations and a class activity to determine what situations where considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of protecting the environment. We asked the children questions at the end of the presentation and awarded them with TCEQ posters.” Reyes comments that these experiences inspired her to continue working hard towards her degree and, someday, work at the agency.

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Mathew Ooi, Environmental Geoscience major and a senior at Texas A&M

Mathew Ooi explains how the GIS layers he and another intern are developing will be implemented into the NPS Program Public Viewer.
Mathew Ooi explains how the GIS layers he and another intern are developing will be implemented into the NPS Program Public Viewer.

Ooi states that frankly, applying for the MLEIP wasn’t hard. Ooi is interning in the Water Quality Planning Division.

“My advisor at Texas A&M would regularly send us emails about job openings or internship opportunities. I also had the chance to meet TCEQ representatives at the Sciences Career Fair, where I was told of the different divisions and programs within the agency. When I learned of the Office of Water programs and the change they affect around the state, I was intrigued.”

Ooi adds that he wasn’t sure if an international student could apply, so he waited and decided to do his research before applying. He asked past MLEIP interns that he knew, as well as friends who graduated and began working for the agency, about their experiences. Their stories of personal growth and the invaluable skills that they gained over the summer made Ooi want to be an MLEIP intern. So, he finally applied.

His biggest driving force for being an MLEIP intern was the possibility to work on projects that affect change in water quality and availability.

“I wanted to be able to apply the skills and knowledge that I had acquired in college in a professional setting and, from what I had heard, the TCEQ was the perfect place to foster those skills,” he explains.

Ooi is a Geographical Information System /Environmental intern with the Nonpoint Source team in the Water Quality Planning Division. Most of the work that he has been given to complete is GIS*-related. The major project he is currently working on is developing GIS layers for the NPS Program Public Viewer. In layman’s terms: he is taking the physical projects that the NPS team implements across the state, whether it be low-impact developments, water quality monitoring programs, education and outreach, etc., and mapping their locations on a web viewer. This web viewer will make it simple for anyone to view the green infrastructure that local communities, stakeholders, and contractors have applied in projects across Texas.

The layer that was most recently completed incorporates all the best management practices around the state that are sponsored through the NPS team’s 319(h) grant, and includes BMPs such as low-impact developments, wetland restoration, and education and outreach. He and his intern partner Celine Rendon are working on creating and conducting quality assurance on more GIS layers for the NPS, including a monitoring stations layer.

“These layers that we’ve been building will make accessing the projects that the NPS team has worked on throughout the state user-friendly; that is, once it goes public,” Ooi explains.

He adds, “while this project is my main task, I’ve also been helping with on-call duties, quality assuring contract amendments, and familiarizing myself with the filing and surface water quality monitoring system used here at TCEQ. The NPS team has also allowed me to attend a couple of watershed stakeholder meetings that were an invaluable experience. Working on the GIS project exposed me to the work that the NPS team has accomplished across the state and I’m excited by the possibility of starting a professional career in water management.”

He has also been working with his mentors on the NPS team to develop his ArcGIS Pro and Python software skills. These geoprocessing tools help streamline some of the data visualization tasks that the NPS team performs.

Ooi describes a typical day, which he says includes waking up at 6:30 a.m. and taking his dog for a walk through the Shoal Creek Greenbelt before heading to work. When he gets to TCEQ headquarters, he checks his emails for any outstanding tasks that need to be completed for the day, then organizes his priorities and begins working on building the GIS shapefiles for the NPS web viewer. Around 10:30 a.m. he and his team go for a walk around the Park 35 campus before returning to resume their duties. Interspersed between GIS work, he also helps the NPS team with ad-hoc assignments and attends progress meetings.

“What I hope to get out of my internship experience is gaining knowledge of water quality standards and planning, and after my internship here, I will either start my professional career or pursue a master’s in Hydrological Science. I definitely also want to take the skills I learn here back home to Singapore to affect change there,” says Ooi.

He adds that working on these projects has helped him further both his technical and soft skills. “My time here with this program has also taught me to sharpen my professional skills and how to manage myself at work in an office environment. I’m grateful that as an intern, I have been given the opportunity to share my thoughts and provide input.”

When asked if he would encourage others to apply to be an intern with the MLEIP, he quickly replies “Yes! I would encourage anyone of any background to apply to be an MLEIP intern. The opportunities one gets as an intern help tremendously to navigate career choices.”

Ooi adds that students should apply because “one never knows where the experience will lead.”

*GIS is a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualizations using maps and 3D scenes.

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Kendra Baldwin, graduate in Earth Environmental and Planetary Science at Rice University

Kendra Baldwin (front) and fellow intern Bailey Bertolino investigating at an emissions event site.
Kendra Baldwin (front) and fellow intern Bailey Bertolino investigating at an emissions event site.

Baldwin is getting a unique opportunity to work on many aspects of the environmental enforcement process during her internship with the Region 12 - Houston Air Section. She is working with the section’s Program Coordinator (and former MLEIP intern) Warda Omar.

Baldwin states that what interested her about applying for the MLEIP was that she was looking for internships in Houston that would give her a glimpse at the government side of environmentalism.

Baldwin’s internship is giving her the opportunity to learn how to process files relating to emission-event investigations to the Central File Room. She works on evaluating emission events to determine if they are recordable or reportable, and sorts emission-event incidents received by the region into categories such as emission event, maintenance start-up or shut-down, and opacity.

She was also involved in conducting two planned maintenance startup and shutdown investigations and, if that wasn’t enough, she works on coding and filing stack tests (stack tests are done to make sure a facility’s stack emissions are at an appropriate level).

“I take the bus to the office so my day starts two hours earlier than most. Once here, I usually scan and file paperwork and work on investigation reports. I typically have lunch with the other Air Section interns, but sometimes we go out for lunch with other employees or interns in other sections,” Baldwin explains.

Baldwin accompanies investigators who go to emission events and attends general Air Section meetings. Other days, she and other interns or new hires go to trainings.

Baldwin hopes to gain clarity about what kind of work she enjoys doing and to fully understand what working for an agency like TCEQ entails. She looks forward to making lasting connections and further developing her technical writing skills.

She feels she has learned a lot about the difference between what the state has jurisdiction over versus what is handled by the federal government and other agencies.

“I’m also learning about how we hold companies accountable for what they emit, and how situations like the Intercontinental Terminals Company fire in Deer Park are dealt with.” She adds that she would definitely encourage other students to apply to be an intern with the MLEIP. She would tell others considering the internship that, “it’s a great opportunity to work with passionate people and get hands-on experience in the environmental field. Plus, it pays!”

Baldwin’s mentor Warda Omar stated that “working with Kendra has been a pleasure. She is thorough, dependable, organized, a quick learner, she asks questions, and is resourceful. She knows where to get the information needed to complete tasks.”

All four highlighted interns agreed that the opportunities within the MLEIP and TCEQ are endless. They also encourage students who may wish to apply in the future not to pass on the chance to learn and grow from this experience.

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All photos TCEQ.