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Cynthia McClain

RELP Cohort: 2013
Geological and Environmental Sciences

Cynthia McClain is a hydrologist and biogeochemist who studies water quality. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Stanford University, pursuing her PhD in Geological and Environmental Sciences. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Davis with a BS in Geology and a minor in Hydrology in 2008, and earned her MS in Environmental Engineering at Stanford University in 2011. McClain aspires to identify, characterize and design solutions to societally relevant environmental problems. In addition, she aims to train research scientists, practitioners and policy-makers to maximize communication across disciplines and sectors.

McClain’s ultimate goal is to help decrease negative human health impacts that result from exposure to environmental contamination. She investigates the distribution and coupled cycling of heavy metals (such as chromium) and nutrients (such as nitrogen) in groundwater and soils. These investigations explore how humans are changing elemental cycling on Earth by comparing pristine regions to areas influenced by agriculture, mining or development. Her research quantifies chemical transformations and physical flow of water, working toward a molecular-level understanding of field-scale environmental processes. McClain conducts field, laboratory and modeling studies using imaging, isotopic, x-ray, microbiological, statistical and data visualization techniques. She is currently researching groundwater quality in California’s Central Valley.

McClain has professional experience working in government, environmental consulting, and the oil and gas industry. As a technical scientist intern for Chevron, she co-authored a guidance document for environmental consultants to use during clean-up of nitrate-contaminated sites. Throughout her professional career, she has mainly worked on projects (including three Superfund sites) investigating organic contaminants from human-derived sources – specifically, their movement and fate in surface water, groundwater and sediments. In this capacity, McClain helped characterize the extent of contamination and monitor the performance of engineered remediation activities.

Since 2004, McClain has taught, motivated and mentored younger science students. At Stanford, she volunteers with several youth programs and is a member of Stanford’s Earth Science Policy Lunch Group, the Association of Women in Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the Geological Society of America.