In a fluorescent lit office in Richmond, Virginia, Bridget Donaldson is peering at a mostly dark video screen, lit only by the dull green glow of the camera’s night vision lens. She can barely make out the brush and weeds lining a dark section of highway, 50 miles away, that’s being watched by the camera. Cars are speeding by in the night, despite the deer crossing signs posted along the highway. Bridget is not surprised at the speeding cars. She knows that signs that warn of sporadic or possible encounters with wildlife do not have a consistent impact on driver behavior.
Suddenly there is a change. Bridget sees a series of flashing lights and a message board is activated with a warning: SLOW DOWN, WILDLIFE DETECTED. She watches to see what happens. She knows that somewhere nearby, somewhere just out of sight, a large mammal—probably a deer, or maybe even an elk—is drawing nearer and nearer to the highway. She knows this because something has tripped the detection cable that Bridget helped to bury in the cracked earth not far from the road and that something has activated the lights.
“There it is!” Bridget gasps. A large deer, two years old or so, ambles through the brush as though it didn’t even know the highway was there. Bridget watches as the deer approaches the edge of the road. Her heart is racing with excitement, but she is not scared because she can see that drivers are slowing down in response to the flashing lights. And just as suddenly as it appeared, the deer saunters off never realizing the part Bridget played in making the roadway a safer place for it.
Few of us appreciate the impact our transportation system has on plants and wildlife. No one ever teaches you that 15-20% of the land is impacted by roads. Or that the single greatest threat to some species—like the Florida panther—isn’t hunting, or starvation, or the building of a power plant, but cars.
As an environmental research scientist for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), it’s Bridget’s job to know about such things. The more Bridget knows, the more she can help.
You could call it environmental consulting. Before the Commonwealth of Virginia constructs a transportation project, such as a highway, Bridget and her colleagues assess the ecological impact that the project might entail. They can then make recommendations to curb this impact.
For example, Bridget might suggest the inclusion of a wildlife overpass or underpass on a highway in spots where animals are likely to cross. Additionally, VDOT’s wildlife detection system alerts drivers to wildlife ahead, giving them the chance to reduce their speed—particularly useful in areas heavily populated with large mammals like elk or deer. In some cases, the state might even take a project back to the drawing board to move it away from the habitat of a protected species.
The jobs for environmental scientists in the transportation field are almost limitless, Bridget told Fast Forward. Her colleagues are experts in everything from greenhouse gas emissions to water pollution. The need for people in these careers will only increase as federal and state laws require transportation agencies to be more environmentally conscious when they plan or build a facility like a road or a bridge.
This all boils down to one thing: if you want to truly play a role in saving the environment, working as an environmental scientist or engineer for a state department of transportation is probably high on the list of the best ways to do it.
For more information on careers in environmental science, check out Bridget’s video, then take a peek at this Wikipedia article on environmental science for a great overview!