Environmental Protection Agency
Improved the safety of U.S. water supplies by designing a sophisticated software suite that identifies risks and solutions to possible terrorist attacks.
After earning her Ph.D. in mathematics, Regan Murray found herself in a cubicle eight hours a day trying to figure out math problems. She found the work too distant from people and the problems they care about.
“I wanted to do more meaningful work that directly impacted people’s lives,” said Dr. Murray.
She got what she wanted, and then some. Dr. Murray now heads a project at the Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard the water supplies of millions of Americans. It’s hard for a recent graduate to impact more people’s lives more directly than that.
Dr. Murray began her work at the EPA shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, just in time to join EPA’s efforts to improve security at the more than 50,000 drinking-water utilities around the country.
In particular, Murray and her team have developed a suite of software that helps public water facilities design and operate contamination warning systems.
One of these software programs is a real-time, automated data analysis tool called CANARY, which monitors sensor data, recognizes common data patterns and identifies abnormalities that may indicate the presence of contaminants. This software has helped to reduce the number of false positive alarms fielded by water utilities, helping them to save time and money, and allowing them to focus on serious threats.
Another software program, TEVA-SPOT, enables water utilities to identify the best locations in their distribution system to install sensors.
“This program is incredible in that this software can be used by any water facility, despite the vast differences between them,” said EPA’s Kim Fox, who heads the Water Infrastructure Protection Division.
It has already been used to design sensor networks for nine large water utilities. For these nine systems, contamination attacks on drinking water systems may be detected early enough to reduce potential fatalities by more than 48 percent and potential economic impacts by billions of dollars.
EPA’s work to enhance water system safety has been a team effort, but Dr. Murray has been a major driving force.
“She was the mastermind behind this project,” said Jonathan Herrmann, who heads the National Homeland Security Research Center.
Dr. Murray credits her success primarily to her mathematics background. “My ability to lead stems from my background in math,” said Dr. Murray. “Math is the language of science, which is perfect when leading an interdisciplinary group of researchers.”
But developing this software and promoting its use was as much a people management challenge, as it was a scientific and mathematical one. Dr. Murray had to coordinate activities among a diverse group of government scientists and develop partnerships with water utilities; not an easy task.
“She worked hard to build and maintain relationships with water utilities to ensure that her software would be a real-world application,” said Kevin Morley, security program manager for the American Water Works Association. “Her work on this project is a model for future agency efforts in terms of creating working relationships.”
“Her relationship development and management will benefit the EPA for years to come,” Jonathan Herrmann continues.
In the end, Dr. Murray’s work always seems to come back to her compulsion to work with and help other people. This spirit of service carries beyond her day job. Despite working long hours at EPA, she co-founded a nonprofit to improve the lives of children impacted by poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa. She has raised more than $50,000 to benefit schools in Zambia and visits the country each year.
Five years ago, she wanted to make sure her work was having an impact beyond her cubicle. Today, she’s making a difference across the country and in another continent.