Brad Grams, AB '05
Tell me about yourself and your current role with the EPA.
I am currently a Senior Analyst in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer. I’ve been in my current position for about two years, but I’ve been at EPA for 14 years total, starting in their Chicago (Great Lakes) Regional Office. My current role is really interesting, because the role also includes being the Principal White House Liaison on environmental media budgeting issues for EPA. This includes focusing on the preventative programs that EPA institutes, including the air, water, chemical safety, homeland security, tribal affairs, and research and development programs. My typical day involves working with those programs through their senior leadership on developing budgets and planning priorities, and then coordinating that development with senior leadership in the White House as part of the formulation of the President's Budget. In short, I help senior leadership in the federal government that are involved in preventative environmental program issues come to consensus on what their different strategic planning and budgeting goals are for each given fiscal year.
How did you get to that role from the University of Chicago?
A lot of it was due to PGE, which was called Environmental Studies before it was known as PGE — I graduated in 2005, before PGE began. During my junior year, the Environmental Studies program helped me to obtain a research fellowship at the U.S. Department of Energy, where I performed climate change and air toxics research, which I was really passionate about. I applied that work toward my thesis, and at that time Ted Steck --- who was then Chair of the Program, along with my mentor and supervisor, guided me toward various EPA opportunities, which they thought were an ideal fit based on my education, interest, skills and work. My mentor at the Department of Energy had let me know, “hey, you know, EPA has openings doing a lot of similar work.” And so I looked at some of the opportunities, I applied, and — kind of strangely, you might think they’d want me to do climate change work — EPA thought I’d be a better fit in hazardous waste regulation. It was kind of a weird and unexpected offer, but the supervisor there was really awesome, and we really connected. I really liked the work she was doing and her goals of reducing toxins in the environment, so I started working there in 2005, and the rest is history... I worked my way up, and by the end of my time in the Chicago office in 2017, I was Chief of Staff (Secretariat) for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s toxics and waste reduction program and a highly regarded subject matter expert in chemical and waste safety nationally.
By 2017, I had done waste and toxic work for years and, between my Chief of Staff role and having a series of stints in various roles involving chemical and waste safety in the Office, from Senior Staff, to Team Leader to Acting Chief, I felt like it was time for a change: not only for new challenges and opportunities, but also to build new knowledge and experience. So, in my last years in the Chicago Office, I went back to graduate school and enrolled at Northwestern University in their Master’s in Public Policy and Administration Program, which really rekindled my interest in budgeting, program evaluation and strategic planning. As I was finishing that program, EPA was looking for folks to help support the Chief Financial Officer’s Office in those same areas. So, to leverage my new education and experience while fulfilling my goal to take on something new, I applied there as I was about to graduate. And, everything worked out perfectly: graduation and a new opportunity converged! I was offered a position in the CFO’s office helping the agency as a whole work on environmental issues in the same way I was doing within the Chicago office, but in a way that was a little broader and involved budgeting, program evaluation and strategic planning activities that I wanted to do. And so I came to headquarters here in DC in 2017 to do my current role, which has really helped me to grow and get out of my comfort zone to address even more environmental issues.
Did your interest in the field start at the University of Chicago?
No. It came way before. I was interested in the environment in junior high and high school, but at the time my schooling had a heavy pre-professional drive, so I was very much pushed in a “pre-med direction.” But when I came to the UofC, I took this one elective freshman year — environmental chemistry — and I really fell in love with it. And at the same time, I was working in the Neighborhood Schools Program, doing tutoring in the sciences at Hyde Park High School, where I was covering much of the same material. I found I loved teaching as much as I did learning more about it in college. So, it was NSP and that environmental chemistry class that really got me interested in and moving toward the environmental studies program. And, slowly, over all four years, I meandered more and more toward environmental studies and policy work.
At the end of my time at the UofC, I ended up being a double major, with a BS in Chemistry and a BA in Environmental Studies, and it was a great experience. However, after all of the great experiences I had in environmental studies and NSP, I wished I’d done more in sustainability than I had done. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20.
What’s changed about the Environmental Studies program since you graduated?
So, so much! But all for the better! Professor Sabina Shaikh has added a ton to the program, and PGE’s offerings are so great now that I’m super jealous of current students. There are so many more opportunities to engage with local, state and federal government than there were when I was in the Program. It’s also much more holistic; there’s a lot more work in urban planning and development, and more investigation into how that work links to environmental science and policy and vice versa. When I was in the Program, environmental studies was more about picking a major elsewhere and creating an environmental emphasis through the environmental studies curriculum. For example, I was a chemistry major, but I was interested in policy and environmental chemistry, so they recommended and directed me to environmental studies courses that emphasized science ethics, policy ethics and work related to chemistry to take me in an environmental direction. It was really helpful in steering me to where I am now, but didn’t provide the breadth and depth in environmental work that PGE provides today. You guys have so many more offerings now, the Program has really expanded and I’m so proud of how it has grown and what it has become!
You talked about neighborhood schools, but are there any other experiences outside the classroom here that shaped your interest in the environment?
Sure. However, I would say the classroom really influenced me more than anything else toward getting involved in the environment. I know that, for a lot of people, it's community work, or a particular environmental experience, or something else more tangible or physical that kindles an initial connection. But for me, academic work and theory --- the promise of what could be --- actually pushed my interest in the environment. I saw a lot of opportunity in policy development (and what policy could do to improve our lives) while in school, and I saw myself through my academic work as being able to influence that. I was a very good writer, and found my writing skills were stronger than my science ones as time went on. That finding pushed me further toward exploring how I could apply science through my writing, and public policy seemed to be the most ideal answer. I found that I was really interested in and devoted to doing policy writing from research, as opposed to doing research directly, and my career arc really shows that. I’ve moved from pure research to applied research to public policy, and I’m now more toward the policy end of things as compared to science.
As far as other experiences, I would highlight community work as a huge driver in my move toward policy advocacy in the environment. Most of my volunteer work was off-campus, and I mean way, way off-campus (I lived on the North Side in Lincoln Park my last two years of college). I did a great deal of volunteer work at Gilda’s Club Chicago and Gilda’s Club Milwaukee, cancer support networks in Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as various GLBTQIA2s and community service organizations, like the Howard Brown Health Center, but it wasn’t directly related to the environment. That said, the experiences helped me learn more effective ways to advocate and be involved in positive ways in my community, and how to be a good citizen --- inside and outside government.
Outside of the environment, what else are you interested in?
I’m an avid comic book collector. Unfortunately, when I moved to DC from Chicago, I had to get rid of pretty much all of them because I had to downsize fairly dramatically. So I’m rebuilding my collection from the ground up. I’m also really into B movies, especially B movie horror, I find it really fascinating. I think there’s a lot of really weird but interesting horror movie material out there from which many important lessons can be gleaned. Outside of that, I spend a lot of time in art museums and galleries. I’m really into contemporary art, particularly photography and mixed media. I have a few friends who are professional artists, and I love being able to I help them with their work, be it studio curation, setting up shows or supporting their marketing and communications efforts.
And, last but most assuredly not least, I’m always with my dog, Ripley, an eskimo-border collie mix. He’s just an awesome guy; he’s turning twelve. He takes up a ton of my time, probably more than anything and everything else. I love him so much!
What advice would you give an undergrad interested in doing something similar to what you do?
I’ve talked with a lot of friends from the environmental studies program in my cohort. It’ll be fifteen years next year. The biggest piece of advice I’d give is to think long-term with regard to your career path (e.g., what you visualize yourself doing in the short-, medium- and long-terms), and work strategically to get to the goals or vision you have in mind. A lot of the best careers start with a really strong foundation in knowledge, skills and experience that really directly speak to the person’s particular career pathway, built over many years of goal-setting and meeting those goals. One fortunate --- but also really unfortunate --- thing about UofC is that it’s a very elite institution. So, many times, we’re focused more on being the leader right away and making choices based on some kind of instant gratification… “the best thing right now…”--- because we’ve been a leader for so many years in some way or another. However, instead of focusing on being the leader, we should be learning about how to grow and become a leader in an area in which we’re actually interested and would be a better overall fit. And really, the truth of the matter is, no matter what — even if you go right to grad school — you’re not going to come out as a leader right away, you’re going to be starting at the bottom of wherever you are in some way, whether it’s the bottom of the organization, in building connections for your network, or starting a whole new career. So, find your interest or passion and what you would like to do, visualize it, and make tangible and measurable goals that will help get you there by building a foundation of knowledge, skills and experience relevant to that vision.
If you think long-term, and you think about building a strong foundation and developing skills you can build upon using well-defined goals and objectives, that’s what really can propel you forward. Many --- if not most --- times, it is the turtle that wins the race. A lot of people like rush to move up in organizations too quickly, without preparation, and they get the “Icarus Effect” and tumble down just as quickly, if not moreso. But I think if you work slow and steady toward a set of goals, and you think long-term about them, you’ll find yourself in a much better place than rushing just to be a leader, or rushing for a title or some other type of instant reward. Those things are really fleeting.
Also, I noticed a lot of your other interviewees brought up impact, and I really liked that a lot of them said it was about trying to think of a way to add value no matter where you are. To avoid plagiarism and also to add value to the dialog, my recommendation there is to do impactful things in impactful places with impactful people. No matter where you are, try to find out where you can make the most positive impact with likeminded people who also want to make a similar positive impact. At the same time, try to find a location (geographically, organizationally or theoretically) unique to something you want to positively change. Such a tactical approach is not only a great way to build a foundation for yourself, but also a great way to instigate change you won’t see otherwise, while helping and advancing others with similar goals and vision who will help you at the same time.
And finally, and this comes from my best friend and his family, I’d say have something outside of your day-to-day job that isn’t at all like your day-to-day job. I’m really passionate about helping people, so I like to coach, mentor, tutor, and teach on the side outside of work. I’m a career coach and mentor in public policy and administration for both The University of Chicago (Kimpton Fellows and the Institute of Politics) and Northwestern University. I also teach and tutor for Northwestern University in their Masters in Public Policy Administration program, where I do a variety of activities, from tutoring specific courses, to being a TA in others, to being a Adjunct Lecturer in their learning studios and other programs. Those experiences have given me a different perspective on environmental policy and environmental science, and expanded my knowledge, skills and experience in ways that my day job would never do. The experiences also keep you more current and mentally active all around, thinking about other careers, jobs, and opportunities you may never see otherwise. If you bury yourself in your job or some other activity for too long, it’ll get monotonous and you’ll find yourself falling away from the activities, networks and opportunities that will push you forward in your life. Whether this “something outside of your day-to-day job” is a second job or volunteering or being with your family more or a hobby, just have something that develops and interests you in a way that’s different from your day-to-day job. I think it’s really important, particularly as you get older. A lot of people get too focused on their jobs and they lose sight of everything else that matters to them, with devastating effect.
Anything else you want to add?
Nothing further about me, but I’d love to hear from anyone interested in what I do! Students should feel free to reach out anytime through PGE, Wisr, LinkedIn or otherwise. While my specialty tends to be federal environmental policy, and my graduate school research has been global environmental policy, I have a fairly large public policy and administration network and love helping others advance in the arena. So if people in PGE are interested in something I mentioned here or need help navigating their environmental career in some way, feel reach out to me. I’d love to chat!