First three students graduate from UTPA's Environmental Science Program
Posted: 06/03/2011
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The environmental science degree program at The University of Texas-Pan American couldn't have come along at a better time for Jacqueline Munoz.

The Environmental Science Program in the Department of Biology celebrated its first three graduates in the program at the May 2011 UTPA commencement ceremonies. Pictured left to right are Dr. Frank J. Dirrigl Jr., assistant professor of environmental science; and graduates Jacqueline D. Munoz, Samantha E. Benson, and Elizabeth A. Gonzalez. There are currently 30 students in the program which began in 2009 at the University.
A Los Fresnos native, Munoz, 27, said she was fascinated with marine biology even in early childhood and chose to major in biology, first at The University of Texas-Brownsville. However, parenthood and a move to McAllen intervened. In September 2009, still pursuing a biology major at South Texas College, she transferred to UT Pan American. That's when she learned about the new program that most closely fit her longtime interest and passion.

"All along I stayed with a biology major because it was the closest thing to marine biology. I found out about the Environmental Science program during my first semester at UTPA. I researched careers in environmental science and decided that this was the degree for me," Munoz said.

On May 15, she became one of the first three graduates in the interdisciplinary degree program which provides students with a broad foundation in the sciences and specialized knowledge in environmental biology, chemistry and biology.

Dr. Robert Edwards, director of the program, said the University initiated the program to help develop professionals to address the increasing number of environmental concerns in the Rio Grande Valley as a result of its rapid growth in recent years. He said it draws upon the expertise and resources in the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Geology, allowing the program to offer some important skills not found in other programs.

"An especially effective and marketable skill developed in this program is the use of Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing techniques, which allow scientists and planners to map, analyze, and predict environmental scenarios. This aspect of the program distinguishes it from other environmental science programs at other universities," he said.

The program, which offers tracks in chemistry, geology and biology, prepares students for careers in government, consulting and industry as well as for entry into graduate school programs. In 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) rated an environmental scientist as number one of the top 10 jobs in science based on the projected job growth. The BLS reports that the job growth in environmental science related careers should increase by almost 30 percent until 2018.

Edwards indicated that job demand will be spurred largely by public policy, which will oblige companies and organizations to comply with complex environmental laws and regulations, particularly those dealing with groundwater contamination, clean air and flood control. Job opportunities include state and federal agencies charged with monitoring and managing the environment, environmental consulting firms and industry positions in air and emissions monitoring, pollution prevention and remediation and safety and health.

"Because most of our students are bilingual in English and Spanish, they will be particularly attractive to multinational firms conducting business in Mexico, Central America, and South America," Edwards said.

Each student works on local environmental issues while taking courses for the program, including internships and volunteer activities with organizations such as the World Birding Center in Edinburg, Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the Valley Land Fund, and Vida Verde, a green cities initiative.

Munoz said during her studies in the program at UTPA, she learned about joint efforts by the United States and Mexico to develop infrastructure to treat wastewater in Mexico, which subsequently led to her interest in watershed and stormwater management. She is currently an intern with the Environmental Health and Safety Department at UTPA as well as with its Office of Sustainability. Munoz will also begin graduate studies this fall to earn a Master of Public Administration.

"My goal is to develop a career in environmental health and safety and incorporate my interest in watershed management through stormwater management plans," she said.

The program currently has 30 majors, Edwards said, and will seek synergisms with the Environmental Studies minor that has been proposed for UTPA.

"We would like for this program to continue to grow and prosper," he said.

Read more about the program here or contact Edwards at