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Career Series: Fast Five with Lois Graham, recipient of Lifetime Achievement Award from Michigan Environmental Health Association

Longtime EGLE staffer Lois Graham, senior PFAS analyst, has been awarded the Michigan Environmental Health Association’s (MEHA) highest honor – the LaRue Miller Lifetime Achievement award.

Lois Graham, senior PFAS analyst, hold the LaRue Miller Lifetime Achievement award, which she received from the Michigan Environmental Health award.

Lois Graham holds the LaRue Miller Lifetime Achievement award.


It is the most prestigious award granted by MEHA. This award is presented to honor the recipient’s exceptional contribution(s) to MEHA and to the environmental health profession over the course of their career.

Dana DeBruyn, Environmental Health section manager at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), nominated Graham. “Through her years of work Lois has no doubt helped ensure drinking water quality for countless Michigan residents,” she said. “Environmental Health professionals throughout the state benefit from the wealth of knowledge that Lois built during her career and brings to work every day. Her skills and knowledge, and especially her ability to communicate and utilize a vast network of valuable contacts, have made possible the work that we do in Environmental Health. It has truly been a privilege to be able to get to know and work with Lois. I believe she is a shining example for all of us working in public service, and her contributions to Public and Environmental Health in Michigan.”

MI Environment asked Graham about her career and her thoughts about the Environmental Health field.

What are your thoughts about the award?

I was completely surprised and humbled when notified that the Michigan Environmental Health Association Awards Committee chose me for this year’s recipient of the LaRue L. Miller Lifetime Achievement Award.  Looking over the list of past recipients, I find I knew and/or worked with many of them over my many years of service.  I now find myself in quite a prestigious group of Michigan Environmental Health professionals.  To be recognized for my work both at local health departments (LHDs) and the state of Michigan is such an honor!

How long have you worked in environmental health?

This year’s end will mark 44 years of service.  I graduated from what was then Ferris State College with a bachelor’s degree in environmental health (EH) at the end of 1979.  I began my first job in early January 1980 working my first five years at three different local health departments and earned my Registered Sanitarian (R.S.) designation.

What stands out in your career?

Trial by fire was my experience in the early years at the local level.  My Ferris EH graduating class was 50% female – a record for that time.  We needed to be accepted and assimilate into a male-dominated field. I had to develop a tone of assertiveness with respectfulness without being characterized as that negative word people like to call women they either don’t agree with or believe they are too dominant for the times. It was a fine line between setting boundaries and getting the job done.

Joining the Michigan Department of Public Health’s Ground Water Quality Control Section with the first ever drinking water contamination investigation program (CIP) was a thrill.  I like working in areas no one else is doing, or something new that gets built literally from the ground up.  That was shortly after the passage of the 1984 Michigan Environmental Response Act, or Act 307.  Michigan voters approved a bond referendum to fund our work to sample drinking water wells in areas of known, potential or suspected groundwater contamination, and provide delivery of bottled water until a permanent safe source of water could be provided (well replacement or connection to water main). And it was all free for well owners impacted by contamination through no fault of their own —the first in the nation to provide full service!! 

Following 32 years in CIP, I volunteered to go to the Flint Field Office (FFO) with the Community Outreach Resident Education (CORE) program. Genesee County was in my assigned district, it meshed with my experience in contamination investigation, and I felt a strong need to help Flint residents.  Just before that I was asked to assist a team sampling Flint school drinking fountains and kitchen taps.  Afterwards, it was a natural transition to the FFO.

My tenure at the FFO was 1 year, my CIP position had been backfilled, and I volunteered to step into the new statewide PFAS sampling survey of public water supplies.  Once again, I ventured into a program startup using my decades of experience.

Looking back during my education at Ferris, drinking water chemical contamination investigation wasn’t a thing.  It developed 5 years after I graduated and – who knew? - became my specialty. 

Where is the environmental health profession headed?

Environmental Health in my time has expanded beyond its start in milk sanitation and the basics of food service, on-site drinking water wells and wastewater disposal, noncommunity public water supplies, and other programs. I see more and more expectations placed on LHDs especially with emerging contaminants in drinking water, microplastics, harmful algal blooms (HABs), food safety, statewide onsite septic system code, technology, expansion of minimum program requirements, revisions to and higher expectations under the accreditation process, and much needed training for pivoting to meet crises such as the recent pandemic where LHDs were unfairly targeted.  Going forward, our environmental health professionals will need to know the basics as well as all the new program requirements. 

What is your advice for those considering a career in environmental health?

Find a good environmental health program at a reputable college or university. Find good mentors.  Be willing to accept honest feedback. Don’t be shy asking questions. Make sure you understand the whys and hows. Keep asking even if you get negative feedback. Be persistent and insistent. Do job shadowing. Ladies, get together with other women in your same field, develop networks, share experiences, tips, and techniques. You need a support network. Men too.  Join a Toastmasters club to improve communication and leadership skills. Be curious about what is happening in your agency, community, nation, and world. Expand your knowledge, especially within the broad umbrella of Environmental Health. Join the Michigan Environmental Health Association and attend trainings. Become an expert in whatever program area you are in now, even if it isn’t a good fit. Then keep exploring other options. And most of all, be willing to run to the fire/crisis using your skills to help our residents.