Akerman implements environmental protection at the United Nations

Nancy Akerman works to prevent depletion of the ozone layer as a delegate to the United Nations.

As a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Nancy Akerman, PhD 2009, helps enforce the first international treaty to be signed by every country in the world.

Before she became involved in global public policy, Akerman was conducting doctoral dissertation research on a microbial hydrothermal vent system in Papua New Guinea. Though she loved experimenting with arsenic-eating microbes, Akerman felt a lingering desire to make a more immediate and tangible difference in the world.

Akerman at the United Nations
Akerman speaks at the United Nations. Photo: IISD / ENB Sean Wu

“When I tried to explain my research to my parents, they asked, ‘Well what are you going to do when you find a microbe that needs arsenic?’” Akerman recalled. “And I’d say, ‘I’m not going to do anything, but other people might be able to use it to help clean up a contaminated airfield or industrial site.’ And my parents said, ‘That’s really cool!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t do that part.’”

“All along, I knew I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in academia,” Akerman said. “But that conversation made me realize that I would love to do something that had more of an immediate impact on people’s lives.”

This realization led Akerman to seek out contacts in science policy. Eventually, she found a program, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, that placed science PhDs into government policy-making positions. “I got a placement at the EPA in the office that I work in now, and I loved it so much that I just never looked back.”

In this position, Akerman represents the U.S. at United Nations meetings designed to implement the Montreal Protocol. This international treaty, she explained, was enacted in 1987 after scientists realized the ozone layer over Antarctica was thinning. Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which refrigerators and air conditioners were releasing into the stratosphere, were damaging Earth’s layer of protection from the sun’s UV rays. Without this critical sunscreen, more UV rays could reach the surface, leading to more cancers, cataracts, and disrupted food cycles.

Nancy discussing policy issues at the UN
Akerman works with other UN delegates to reach consensus on key policy issues. Photo: IISD / ENB Sean Wu

“It’s an incredible environmental success story,” Akerman said. “Scientists brought this problem to the attention of political leaders around the world, inspiring a global will to do something about it. So when the Montreal Protocol — an agreement to phase out the usage of ozone-depleting substances — was proposed, every single country in the world eventually agreed to sign onto it. It’s the first UN treaty that achieved universal ratification!”

Under the United States’ Clean Air Act, the EPA is responsible for implementing the Protocol and making sure U.S. companies are following regulations to protect the environment. The EPA has a seat with the State Department at UN meetings concerning the treaty. Akerman has been serving on those U.S. delegations since 2016.

“The UN meetings are very formal,” Akerman said. “Before we go to a meeting, we write a position paper that explains the U.S. stance on certain issues. Sometimes, the U.S. has a very strong position on a specific topic, and other countries are not interested in approaching things the same way. It’s really interesting to drill down with other countries and see what exactly are their issues. We always try to come to an agreement. Sometimes there are easy solutions, but a lot of times there aren’t.”

Looking back at her time at WashU, Akerman offers some advice to current students: “Don’t be afraid to pursue whatever you’re currently interested in,” she said. “It will always be a learning experience. No matter what path you initially pursue, you can always end up doing something you love.”