Amy Wolfe joins KGS hoping to make a difference
For Amy Wolfe, who joined KGS July 1 to conduct research in geohealth and environmental geochemistry, a watery thread has been running through her life and her education: water’s quality, availability, and impact on people’s lives. “My mother grew up in Harrison County, West Virginia, in the mountains,” Wolfe says. “She did not have running water until she was 12 or 13 years old, which blew my mind! She instilled in me, from the time I was very young, this familial culture about water, not wasting it, and its importance.”
Her hyperawareness of water increased in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina, where her family lived near the ocean. She and her sister volunteered at a Red Cross center, where she saw mothers desperately looking for water for their children. “I think the combination of those experiences at a young age guided my path, not necessarily overtly, but with an invisible influence,” Wolfe says.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in marine science at the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Pittsburgh, where a mineralogy class convinced her that she wanted to pursue geochemistry. A postdoctoral position with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also instilled in her a sense of social responsibility that comes with being a scientist.
In 2009, Congress directed the EPA to study the relationship between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and drinking-water resources. The agency conducted five retrospective studies of reported cases of contaminated drinking water in areas where fracking had already occurred. She worked on a case study of drinking-water resources in the Colorado portion of the Raton Basin, in Las Animas and Huerfano Counties, which had its beginnings in the summer of 2007, when methane had begun venting into and from domestic water wells following a series of hydraulic fracturing operations in Huerfano County. “The methane levels were so high that many people could not drink their water, and they were having water trucked in. At one location, venting methane caused an explosion that blew the roof off the homeowner’s water-well pump house. And so our data had value. People cared that we were there and cared about the results because the situation was impacting their daily life—and had been for a number of years before our study began.”
The study team, including Wolfe, received both the EPA Bronze Medal for Commendable Service and the federal agency’s Scientific and Technological Achievement Award. She says research in situations like the one in Colorado uses science to make a difference for people and communities, which is why she was attracted to KGS and the geohealth and geochemistry position. “Having a dedicated position to do this kind of work is extremely unusual. When I saw this, I thought it was incredibly progressive for an institution to create this position, and it’s a field I’ve been trying to break into since I was a doctoral student at Pitt.”
Wolfe hopes to collaborate with research partners in a variety of disciplines outside of KGS to develop new techniques for analyzing diverse materials and assessing environmental exposure to chemical compounds in order to better understand contaminant transfer into animal and human populations. She already has a long list of people to meet for potential research collaborations, including staff in the UK College of Nursing, who have partnered with KGS on radon research, detection, and public education.
She came to KGS from Oxford, Ohio, where she managed the operation of six laboratory facilities, including two trace-metal geochemistry labs and four labs housing analytical equipment at Miami University’s Department of Geology and Environmental Earth Science.
She says she’s already comfortable in her new location. “It’s very familiar here. It reminds me of South Carolina, and I feel like I’m at home.”