March 30, 2001

EPD's Brendan Dooher goes to Washington

Brendan Dooher of the Environmental Protection Department is looking forward "to having lunch with Albert Einstein" at the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C.

Dooher is the first Laboratory engineer to be selected for the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (NAE) fellowship that will allow him to spend a year in the nation’s capital learning about and shaping science policy. The NAE is a part of the National Academy of Science.

A larger-than-life statue of a contemplative Einstein sits outside the NAS building across the street from the Mall and a stone’s throw from the memorial to the president who created the academy of science in 1863 — Abraham Lincoln. "I’ve been told about the courtyard and I want to go have lunch with Einstein."

Washington will certainly offer Dooher plenty of food for thought on a variety of NAE projects, including a study of energy problems in California and the Western United States, and anticipating engineering challenges of the next 20-30 years as part of the Engineer 20/20 effort.

"It’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen," he says, noting that even 10 to 12 years ago few had foreseen the impact of the Internet.

"This will be a fascinating project to work on. The academy brings together a lot of different people from different disciplines."

This assignment is a perfect fit for Dooher who, though still in his early career, already has a broad base of experience in research projects that cut across many fields and disciplines. Having done his undergraduate and master’s work in thermal systems and power plant design before getting a PhD. in probabilistic risk and systems analysis, Dooher never dreamed "I’d get into environmental work."

Dooher is the driving force behind the development of GeoTracker, a geographic information system and database that provides online access to environmental data for the purpose of tracking regulatory information about underground fuel tanks, fuel pipelines and public drinking water supplies.

This "evolving" internet accessible database, which came online statewide about a year ago, allows researchers and regulators to locate, monitor and model existing and potential groundwater contamination in California. Laboratory studies for California of leaking underground fuel tanks and MTBE contamination have both contributed to and benefited from GeoTracker.

The development of this cutting-edge computational tool has required not only scientific and technical know-how, but the diplomatic skills to gain the support of water and regulatory agencies, as well as other stakeholders, many of whom have competing interests.

The idea is for those agencies to contribute to and review the information in the database, Dooher said. "With lots of eyes looking at the information, mistakes get caught.

"It’s important for agencies to contribute to the database," he said, explaining that the exact locations of many wells and fuel tanks are not known. "Access to this centralized online database will improve management of underground storage tanks and public drinking water wells. It won’t reduce the cost of cleanup, but it will reduce and prioritize costs of planning issues around environmental cleanup and those can be significant.
"We’ve built something that, compared to other states, is at the top," Dooher said. "This is a very important project for the state’s environmental cleanup effort."

He is quick to distribute credit for his success to his Environmental Restoration Division colleagues and collaborators Dave Rice, Anne Happel, Walt McNab and Rolf Halden. Current Laboratory and state collaborations are Bryant Hudson, Jean Moran, Gail Eaton and Lee Davisson.

Encouraged to apply for the fellowship by Ellen Raber, deputy head of the Environmental Protection Department, Dooher said, "I was surprised to be asked and really surprised to be selected. This is an honor."
The day of his interview with Newsline, Dooher began preparing for his June assignment in Washington by wearing a suit and tie, a notable departure from the informal attire familiar to his colleagues.

"It’s a different viewpoint back there in Washington. It’s going to be a new experience for me," Dooher reflected. "It was a huge growth thing for me coming to the Lab. This is going to be another huge growth experience."