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For environmental engineer Camille Rivera, protecting the environment has always been a top priority. She is from Puerto Rico and growing up on an island taught her how big an impact events such as hurricanes can have on the environment.
“On a very small scale like Puerto Rico, you can really see environmental impacts,” Rivera said. “That was an eye-opener for me growing up.”
From an early age, she wanted to be able to make a difference and help protect her home and the rest of the planet. This is why she decided to take the path to becoming an environmental engineer. For some, “environmental engineer” seems like an unusual combination. In fact, when Rivera first started pursuing this career, people made assumptions based on the word “environmental.”
“People really had no idea,” Rivera said. “They thought I was going to be protesting and hugging trees. What I like about environmental engineering is that it’s really having that balance between growth and sustainability.”
Witnessing Environmental Impacts Firsthand
Early on in her career, Rivera had the opportunity to work with Ocean Futures Society, a nonprofit founded by Jean-Michel Cousteau devoted to ocean conservation and education. One of her tasks was to assist in the implementation of environmental programs, including assisting with coral reef protection in Puerto Rico. She got to know the behavior of the ecosystem and learned just how fragile it is.
Certain areas of the island were starting to be developed, and I saw how quickly that impacted the coral reef.
“Certain areas of the island were starting to be developed, and I saw how quickly that impacted the coral reef,” Rivera recalled. Near where the development was happening, the coral reef just disappeared. Witnessing these radical changes inspired Rivera to take further action. “It was a very tangible example of climate change for me. Sometimes people don’t really see it, but that’s why I love environmental engineering—everything you do, you can prove it. You can show the results.”
After that experience in Puerto Rico, Rivera went on to earn a graduate certificate in sustainability from Portland State University. Here, she learned just how wide a field sustainability is and how important it is in all aspects of our lives.
“Getting that certificate was really valuable because it taught me all the varieties of practices within sustainability and seeing how that connects to people, the economy, and the environment,” Rivera said.
Making a Difference
In her current role as an environmental health and safety consultant, Rivera has to ensure that her clients—many of which are international, multi-billion-dollar corporations—build, maintain, and expand operations in a way that is environmentally sustainable and meets the myriad federal regulations required by law. It’s a delicate balance, one she says is integral to building a sustainable world.
Maintaining regulations and helping companies make the right environmental decisions has always been a rewarding part of compliance-focused work, and it’s this kind of work that has shaped her career. Having a job that puts Camille face-to-face with people and seeing results firsthand is what drew her to this specific occupation.
Having the opportunity to be out in the field and see the impact you can have with your clients and the work that you do—that’s been really rewarding.
“Having the opportunity to be out in the field and see the impact you can have with your clients and the work that you do—that’s been really rewarding,” Rivera said. Her role puts her face-to-face with the people that get to make big decisions about company policies, which means the work she does has a significant and long-lasting impact.
Because of the multifaceted nature of her work, Rivera describes her day-to-day routine as being a professional generalist. She must have a strong understanding of different regulatory bodies—Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for example—and she must be able to react quickly when new hazards arrive. The safety protocols related to COVID-19 were a recent challenge Rivera had to overcome.
“When [the pandemic] started, I helped clients get started with the implementation of COVID-19 plans,” Rivera said. “It was something that I had to start learning by doing. Everything’s connected—environment, health, and safety. I help them put a strong safety program in place to help protect their employees, which gives me a lot of satisfaction, too.”
Since it’s Rivera’s job to help ensure the operations of her clients are environmentally sound and sustainable, her voice is an important one. “You are empowered to say, ‘no, you cannot do that,’ and it’s amazing how you can help guide companies to do the right thing,” Rivera said.
We hope this story inspires your students. Learn more about how Vernier can support your environmental science courses.
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