Jennifer Arrigo was going to be a writer. As an English major at Boston University, she took an environmental science class to fulfill an elective requirement. It ended up changing the course of her career.
Arrigo grew up around Adirondack Park in New York, a region where acid rain and industrial pollution left hundreds of lakes and ponds devoid of life and the Hudson River sediment laced with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). She came of age in a town divided over whether dredging the river would make existing water quality issues better or worse.
So Arrigo was always keenly aware of the kinds of environmental issues that closely affect peoples’ lives, and the class opened her eyes to solutions. “I started to understand the science of why [water quality issues] were happening and how you could decide whether one course of action or the other was the right one,” she said. “That’s when I started thinking this would be a really interesting way to spend my career.”
After school, Arrigo worked for a citizen’s water quality monitoring network that partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency to collect data used for regulatory requirements. Hooked on fieldwork, she headed back to Boston for a Ph.D. in geography.
Though hydrology was still her focus, Arrigo became increasingly interested in how water and climate interact. As an assistant professor at East Carolina University, Arrigo sought out interdisciplinary opportunities and found what she was looking for in a fellowship at the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science Inc. (CUAHSI). After three summers of research and mentoring students with CUAHSI, an opportunity arose for Arrigo to join the organization full-time. As a program director and later deputy director, she helped the organization advocate for the water science community, running conferences, fellowship programs, and working groups.
“It felt like being in grad school because I was expanding my knowledge base of water science, all the different disciplines it sits in, and all the different places that it becomes relevant,” she said.
CUAHSI also gave Arrigo a window into the next phase of her career at federal science agencies. She had stints at NOAA and the U.S. Global Change Research Program before landing at the Department of Energy (DOE), where she uses her scientific expertise to solicit and evaluate research proposals and boost collaborations among researchers as a program manager with DOE’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program. “I feel like a trusted partner to the academic community,” she said.
“One of the hardest things for me was figuring out that I wanted something different than academia but not knowing exactly what that was and not knowing how to find the resources and the networks to do that,” she said. “Now when people ask me about my career path, I can tell a nice story, and it sounds like a path, but at the time it was really trial and error.”
—Kate Wheeling, Science Writer