‘Out of the box’ thinking leads to career success

Amy Gahala

Amy Gahala

Strangely enough, Michael Jackson was an influential force in leading Amy Gahala to her career path in hydrology.

Gahala, a graduate of the Department of Geology and Environmental Studies, is currently a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. “I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and it all started with Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song.’ That song directed my curiosity of the earth toward concern for how humans were affecting it.”

Years later, after the birth of her son, she saw Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and she knew she wanted to do something that would help save the world’s resources.

In researching colleges, she found that NIU was one of the only colleges in the area to offer a science-based degree that included environmental studies. Not only did NIU have the program, but it also had the prestigious faculty to go with it.

“Professors such as Dr. Reed Scherer, Dr. Ross Powell and Dr. Eugene Perry have done work that is renowned among the scientific community, and their research is some of the most heavily cited,” Gahala said.

Knowing she would be learning under faculty members who are also working on innovative research made NIU her top choice.

Along with studying under these leading scientists, NIU also offered her the important experience she wanted outside the classroom. Gahala’s fondest memories of NIU were the field trips, field camps and research she did in the Yucatan Peninsula. “Each field trip – mineralogy, structure and the Riviera Maya – has offered great experiences with both the learning aspect and the time well-spent with my fellow classmates and the faculty.”

U.S. Geological Survey logoAs a scientist with the USGS, Gahala has put her field experience at NIU to practical use.

“My M.S. degree not only taught me the scientific process, it also taught me how to think like a scientist. This thinking process is what has carried me throughout my first year at the USGS.”

She is now working on a project within Illinois that deals with water quantity and quality and includes a study of an endangered species called the Hines Emerald Dragonfly (HED). The study explores how hydrology within the vicinity of the HED habitat is affected by natural groundwater-fed sources such as seeps and springs. “It’s so rewarding that I am able to utilize my hydrology background to help gain a greater understanding of such a little-understood endangered species.”

Gahala is also working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to aide regional project managers in reviewing documents and reports pertaining to Superfund sites in the Midwest region, once again putting to use the knowledge she gained in the field.

“Here, I focus on my knowledge of hydrology, contaminant hydrology, microbiology and geochemistry to determine if these highly contaminated sites are being properly cleaned and restored to protect human health and the environment.”

Recently, Gahala returned to campus to complete HAZWOPER certification required by the EPA. The training was made possible by her former adviser, Melissa Lenczewski.

“Dr. Lenczewski was influential in passing on her ‘out of the box’ way of thinking to me and my career,” Gahala says.

Lenczewski’s guidance, and the knowledge Gahala gained from Colin Booth in hydrology and hydrologic modeling, has led to the life she envisioned, back when she was listening to Michael Jackson.

“I feel like I landed my dream job. I am working among the world’s leading scientists to solve the many environmental issues we are facing in the 21st century. It is exactly what I had imagined I would be doing.”

by Linda Watson

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