As a child, Michelle Crimi didn’t daydream about wearing a hazmat suit to work. But when she came to Clarkson in 1991, she followed her myriad interests in biology, chemistry, engineering and the environment, and she graduated with a degree in industrial hygiene and environmental toxicology. After earning an MS from Colorado State University and PhD from the Colorado School of Mines, Crimi returned to Clarkson in 2005 to join the Environmental Health Science faculty. As cool as she looks in that hazmat suit, most of her research happens in a lab far from toxic-waste sites, developing technologies for cleaning up contaminated groundwater and analyzing their long-term effectiveness.
Launched in 1984, Clarkson’s environmental health science major was one of the first undergraduate programs of its kind. The curriculum blends chemistry, physiology, physics, toxicology and engineering to prepare students for careers in environmental risk analysis and remediation. Crimi’s students get a head start on their careers by collaborating on many real-world issues.
“I e-mail Clarkson alumni who I graduated with, some whom are top executives in their field, and I ask them, ‘What are some problems that you work on every day that I can share with my class?’ ”
Crimi presents those problems to her class for solutions. Instead of just plugging away at equations or canned lab work, students learn how to tackle open-ended scenarios using baseline skills and more than a little ingenuity.
Some of Crimi’s class projects look more like co-ops and internships. EHS sends its seniors to the Alcoa plant in nearby Massena, N.Y., to complete a semester-long capstone project in occupational and environmental health. The students work directly with facility workers and plant managers who give them real responsibilities.
“They use our students’ data,” Crimi says. Last year, the students conducted a comprehensive noise survey for Alcoa. The year before, they ran an exposure assessment for one of the manufacturing processes on the Alcoa workline.
“That’s the difference between Clarkson and some other schools I’ve attended and taught at: that real-world focus,” says Crimi. “Clarkson puts students in challenging situations and helps them learn to solve multidisciplinary problems and to speak the language of people in other programs and other majors. I think that’s one of the reasons why our students rise to such high levels in their jobs in such a short period of time.”
The environmental health science program boasts nearly a 100 percent job placement rate. An alumna herself, Crimi understands the respect that Clarkson graduates have for the program and the reason they come back to recruit for experienced talent.
“We have more job offers than we have students to fill right them now because of our alumni network,” says Crimi, who also helps get jobs for students in other majors. “They come to us for Clarkson students first.”
In her own lab, Crimi has done a lot of research funded by the Department of Defense. Like heavy industrial polluters, the military “has been working at some of these sites for years, before many of these environmental regulations were even in existence,” says Crimi, who typically becomes involved long after the original buildings have been torn down.
“There are very persistent chemicals that dissolve slowly over time into the groundwater, creating large plumes of contamination,” says Crimi, whose specialty is “using chemicals to destroy chemicals.”
Returning to Clarkson a decade after her graduation, Crimi says that a few things have changed: Enrollment has almost doubled, and more students are majoring in biology, chemistry and straight mathematics. But some things haven’t changed at all.
“The students are what keep us motivated,” she says. “They have an extremely strong work ethic and they really challenge you.”
When we talked, Crimi was preparing to travel with a student to a contaminated site in North Carolina. We’re sure she’ll be bringing an extra hazmat suit.