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From water crisis in Flint to cadaver dogs at mass graves, alumna helps identify hazards in the field
Alumna Alexis Jones and a colleague working at a hazardous site.

From water crisis in Flint to cadaver dogs at mass graves, alumna helps identify hazards in the field

August 26, 2020 at 9:00am

Alexis Jones '20 always says yes to an opportunity, even if she isn’t entirely sure what she is getting herself into. Saying yes led her to Flint, Michigan, in the midst of the water crisis, to hiring cadaver dogs, and to her Master's of Public Health (MPH) degree with a concentration on environmental health sciences from the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.

Jones works as an industrial hygienist at a private, public health consultancy firm. As an industrial hygienist, she helps analyze, identify and measure hazards or stressors that can cause impaired health through chemical, physical, ergonomic or biological exposures.

Many of her cases have made headlines, such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the discovery of mass graves at an infamous reform school for boys in the Florida Panhandle. For the latter, Jones conducted literature reviews on how to find mass graves sites and determined where to hire cadaver dogs.

“I had done a lot of mold and water work, and that’s really all I thought the field was about until the reform school, but there is so much more to it than that. Most of our work comes from lawyers who need expert witness testimony – and it’s all really interesting,” she says.

Jones travels the country for work, visiting sites where her expertise is needed. From investigating landfills in New Orleans to working in a full hazmat suit on an airport tarmac, the work is always aimed at improving public health and safety. She suites up in protective gear as needed and never knows what the next day will bring.

“I’ve now seen bats, in closed spaces, from high up,” she says. “I never have the same day twice, which can be exhausting but it is also super fun because I don’t know what I am walking into when I walk into work. I get an email that says the most outlandish thing and I’m told, ‘grab your respirator, let’s go!’”

Jones was in the right place at the right time when she met her current boss. She had recently graduated with her bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry and was happy to take a job, even though she wasn’t fully aware of what the job entailed.

“I remember when I was first interviewed, I was told, ‘as long as you’re not afraid of bats, enclosed spaces or heights, you should be fine,’" Jones says. "That’s how I got into environmental health consulting and, now that I’ve seen all of those things and more, I probably should have asked more questions.

“At first, I was scanning documents and running coffee, until my boss was called to work in Flint, Michigan, and he needed an extra pair of hands. That is when I got to sit in meetings with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], help collect water samples and send them off to lab, and do water quality measurements right there in the hospital,” she said. “Two months later, I was sent back to Michigan on my own!”

That is when she also decided to go back and get her MPH at Stempel College, knowing she’d need a strong background in public health to tackle the job that she was quickly learning about. 

Her FIU degree has prepared her, as she hoped it would, to grow in her job.

“We do a lot of environmental health risk assessment and human population risk assessment in class, and I literally take what I learned in class and use it when I write my own environmental health risk assessments in the field," Jones said. "Specific classes like environmental toxicology have helped with identifying certain hazards in the field like pesticides or bacteria and how they can adversely affect human health.”