January 22, 2021
Staff Accomplishment

PNNL Oceanographer Maggie McKeon Named NASEM Speaker

Presentation will focus on improving diversity of Superfund site workforce


Maggie McKeon, a physical oceanographer at PNNL

(Photo courtesy of Maggie McKeon)

Maggie McKeon is inspired by how applied science can solve real-world problems.

Her desire to make an impact led her to a career in estuarine physics, in which she studies how fresh water coming from land mixes with saltwater coming from the ocean. In October, McKeon joined Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Portland as a physical oceanographer.

“I’m here because I like studying cool physics problems that actually have some bearing on the real world,” McKeon said.

Now she’s hoping to help improve the quality of Superfund site work as well as aid underserved minority populations surrounding the sites. Superfund sites are areas of pollution that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated as requiring long-term cleanup of hazardous contaminants.

McKeon has been invited by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to speak on the topic at the February 3 launch meeting of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The U.S. launch meeting kicks off the 2021–2030 Ocean Decade, which will establish a worldwide framework for ocean science that supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. McKeon’s talk was chosen as a presentation designed to encourage change during the next decade.

McKeon recently conducted research at the Duwamish Estuary, a five-mile stretch of the Duwamish River in Seattle. The EPA designated the Duwamish Estuary as a Superfund site in 2001 because of harmful chemical compounds and metals found in the bottom of the river.

From this experience, McKeon has been contemplating available opportunities to improve the diversity of the workforce at Superfund sites and through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outreach to nearby residents. She is hopeful that she and her peers can start the conversation that could lead to a more diverse workforce.

“I think that including experts from the academic world or academia-adjacent government agencies would significantly improve the quality of the science, while also furthering our understanding of coastal/estuarine systems,” McKeon said. “I think that money could also be leveraged for STEM outreach to neighboring underserved minority populations and to pull those folks into higher education so that the next generation of experts is more diverse.”

She considers her talk as a conversation starter on an issue that needs a spotlight. She acknowledges that diversifying the workforce and research may take time, but she’s committed to helping start the process.

“I am possibly presenting a problem that I don’t have a solution to,” said McKeon. “I want to get people thinking about how we can take some of the attention that contamination sites have and my experience in Superfund sites to see how we can use it to improve diversity and science.”