Student uses summer internship at CDC to fight environmental contaminants

Aaron Blakney, an environmental resource management major, tries out the HAZMAT suits with his fellow CDC interns during the summer of 2017. Credit: Aaron BlakneyAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Summer temperatures in Atlanta, Georgia, are so hot that the inside of a HAZMAT suit can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), interns can spend a maximum of only 15 minutes in the suit — with good reason. “You come out drenched in sweat,” senior Aaron Blakney said with a smile. “But it was still one of the most interesting things we did.”

There was more to the internship than HAZMAT suits. Blakney and his fellow interns were exposed to many aspects of the CDC’s work — everything from disaster preparedness to air and water quality to food security and safety.

The Erie native, who is majoring in environmental resource management with minors in political science and in watershed and water resource management, spent his summer working at one of the CDC’s campuses in Atlanta in the agency’s only environmental health program. Blakney, who is also president of the Environmental Resource Management Society, an Ag Advocate, and a member of the Student Sustainability Advisory Committee, found out about the position through research on Zintellect, an internship website.

The internship participants included a variety of people from across the country studying different topics. The program had about 300 applicants, and Blakney was one of the 10 students who were accepted. He worked in the CDC’s policy development office, where his focus was economic analysis of Superfund sites. A Superfund site is a location that has significant hazardous-material contamination as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Blakney’s department went into communities that had been classified as Superfund sites and completed a risk assessment to analyze the effects that chemicals and other contaminants had on human health. “One of the things I did on a day-to-day basis was look at the sites we were working on and try to get some economic indicators to see what type of impact the contaminates were having,” he explained.

Every week, the interns listened to guest speakers and visited different locations related to the CDC’s work, such as wastewater treatment and stormwater centers, air quality centers, and even the zoo. These trips were designed to give the students greater insight into how humans affect the environment and how human health changes because of environmental contamination. The interns even participated in a mock mercury spill to see how the CDC cleans up hazardous materials.

Taking the internship was a big step for Blakney — it was the first time he had ever worked outside of Pennsylvania. One of the biggest challenges was adjusting to the difference between academia and the workforce. “In the real world it’s a constant stream of assignments. It really changes your mindset about how you have to get work done. No one tells you what they want, you just have to figure out how to solve the problem,” Blakney noted.

The internship also helped Blakney plan for the future. He has decided that instead of focusing on environmental policy as a career, he would like to work with environmental and public health. “I really like to work with people. I get my energy from being around others. And getting an opportunity to work at the CDC in the future would be an honor,” he said.

Aaron Blakney, an environmental resource management student at Penn State, interned with the Center for Disease Control in 2017. Credit: Aaron BlakneyAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated September 13, 2017