Verena Joerger 2015

  • B.S., Environment Science (Magna Cum Laude) | Sweet Briar College, 2015
  • M.S., Environmental Science | Cornell University, 2017
  • Physical Scientist, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Serena’s interest in air quality began as a student at Sweet Briar while working with environmental science professor Tom O’Halloran. Together, they set up equipment on campus to record gases and count particles. As O’Halloran’s research assistant, she co-authored on of his research papers.

When smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed the East Coast, most residents considered it a nuisance. Verena Joerger marked it as a possible “exceptional event.”

As a scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Verena, Class of 2015, monitors air quality in the mid-Atlantic region, ensuring that state and local air agencies that receive government grants are meeting federal regulations. She also helps these agencies navigate circumstances over which they have no control, like the smoke from a distant fire.

“The bottom line is that the federal government is giving millions of dollars to these programs,” she says. “I see my role as making sure that those programs are implemented properly and that we’re producing the highest quality data possible.”

Her interest in air quality started at Sweet Briar, where she helped former environmental science professor Tom O’Halloran set up a land atmosphere research station on campus, which included gas analyzers and other sophisticated equipment to measure and count particles in the atmosphere. She also served as his research assistant and a co-author on one of his research papers, a rare experience for an undergraduate student.

Verena wrote her honors thesis about what leads to the Blue Ridge Mountain haze. (The short answer is a bit of sulphur dioxide mixed with water vapor and volatile organic compounds emitted from trees.) She then went to Cornell University for a master’s degree in atmospheric science.

“The more I learned about air pollution, the more I became really fascinated with the health effects and the connections between the environment and human health and what we put into the air we breathe,” she says.

At the EPA’s Mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia, Verena is part of the ambient air monitoring group that supports and audits state and local air agencies, which includes visiting these agencies to evaluate the monitoring stations that collect air quality data, as well as assessing infrastructure, staff training and laboratory capacity. Congress pumped more money into air quality programs in recent years, allowing some programs to expand.

As coordinator of the office’s exceptional events program, she helps agencies reflect episodes like wildfires that leave their air quality readings out of compliance with federal standards.

“I have a lot of responsibility in my position to make sure that the programs we fund are really set up for success, doing all that I can to make sure other agencies and grantees are able to do this really important work.”