Dr. Elvia Niebla
Soil Scientist

by SACNAS Biography Project
Reprinted by permission of Society for Advancement of
Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
Copyrighted 2003 ©

Dr. Elvia Niebla
Dr. Elvia Niebla

I always had an interest in outdoor life and improving the world around me. I was the youngest of four siblings growing up in Nogales, Arizona. When I started school, science became my favorite subject. In junior high and high school, I had to make an important decision that would affect the rest of my life. I was advised not to continue taking science and mathematics courses because knowledge of those subjects was not necessary for a secretary or a Spanish teacher - the two traditional careers for Hispanic females in the 1960s. I didn’t want either of those careers. I enjoyed my science courses and I was doing well in them.

My parents had taught me to be disciplined in my studies, and had always encouraged my interest in science. When I discussed the situation with my parents, they urged me to continue taking science and mathematics. They told me that they would support me with whatever I decided to do. I remember how excited I was when one of my teachers told me that because I had done so well in my algebra and geometry classes, he would teach me calculus after school! While I did study, I also had fun being a member of the Girls Athletic Association. I graduated from Nogales High School in 1963 having taken calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics.

I obtained an associate of arts degree from Fullerton Junior College in 1965 and a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology/chemistry from the University of Arizona two years later. After three years of working as a special education teacher in California, where I conducted mathematics and science classes for learning disabled high school students, I returned to the University of Arizona as a research associate, and obtained my doctor of philosophy degree in soil chemistry in 1979. Later, I worked at the Western Archaeological Center where seven states depended on my advice for the scientific techniques of maintaining the historic adobe structures and ecosystems in the national parks. To provide guidance, I conducted on-site experiments to find out which particular soils were used in the construction of the 18th century buildings. As a Federal manager, I arranged to have testing for Federal jobs take place in the smaller towns where jobs were located. Growing up in Nogales, I knew of many people who wanted Federal jobs, but weren’t able to go to the state capital to take the eligibility test. The Federal Executive Association honored me as "Manager of the Year" for creating and implementing this system that increased minority representation in the applicant pool for all Federal jobs.

In 1984, I was hired by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a soil scientist. My responsibility was to develop criteria and write the regulations for the use of sludge on agricultural land. Sludge is what remains when garbage decomposes. In my report, I mathematically described several potential pathways humans could get toxin poisoning from industrial sludge. For example if sludge with a high concentration of a toxin is spread on cattle grazing land, the toxin will pass into the cows. If these cows produce milk for human consumption, this toxin could poison people. For my efforts on addressing this important issue the EPA awarded me the Bronze Medal.

Since 1989, I have worked as National Coordinator of the Global Change Research Program studying the changing global climate and its effects on trees, animals and forested ecosystems. My job as a national science administrator is to translate and provide scientific information to help policy makers develop regulations, determine needs in scientific research and choose which science researchers will receive funding to fill these needs. One year, I decided how to distribute 25 million dollars to scientists and the science projects they proposed. When the results of the environmental research are given to me, I use them to help advise politicians making the rules for the use of land. I also represent the United States at international environmental conferences and committees.

My advice is that you should pursue your interests no matter what they are. Don't be dissuaded by the obstacles and disbelievers that you will encounter. If you are dedicated to your dreams, you will always find a way to accomplish them.

Page created on 2/17/2013 12:00:56 AM

Last edited 1/9/2017 9:52:52 PM

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Related Links

Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) - The mission of SACNAS is to encourage Chicano/Latino and Native American students to pursue graduate education and obtain the advanced degrees necessary for science research, leadership, and teaching careers at all levels.
NASA Soil Science Education Home Page - Find out more about soil and the environment. This site includes extensive links and resources for students and educators.