Student Spotlight

UH Law Center 2L McDonald parlays focus on environmental law into upcoming summer internship with EPA

University of Houston Law Center 2L student Erika McDonald.

University of Houston Law Center 2L student Erika McDonald.

Feb. 26, 2018 — In her previous career as an environment and energy reporter, Erika McDonald covered stories exposing unethical practices around the world. McDonald, currently a second-year student at the University of Houston Law Center, developed a passion for stories about environmental justice and communities fighting to protect their public health from pollution-causing industrial activities.

“I met people from refinery fence-line neighborhoods from Port Arthur, Texas, to Durban, South Africa,” she said of her 10 years reporting for public radio stations and newspapers, including freelancing for the Houston Chronicle.

“I spoke with indigenous people fighting to save ancestral lands from petroleum extraction and exploration in the rain forests of Ecuador and Peru, and subsistence fishing communities suffering health impacts from eating fish from Lufkin’s Sam Rayburn Lake, which was contaminated with mercury traced to a nearby a paper mill.”

After making the transition from journalist to law student, McDonald’s goal now is to serve vulnerable communities like these by providing legal representation. She recently secured a fellowship in Washington, D.C., where she will work in the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of general counsel. She will begin the 12-week Summer Honors Program at the conclusion of the spring 2019 semester.

“I wanted to attend law school after realizing I wasn’t doing enough to help the people whose stories I reported,” McDonald said. “Vulnerable communities need strong representation to help balance the scales of justice.

“Polluting industries can afford to employ the top law firms to advocate for their interests, so the communities whose health is most impacted by industrial activity deserve just as strong a voice.”

While at the EPA, McDonald will be responsible for researching and writing about administrative, environmental, and general law issues among other activities. The office of general counsel is divided into eight separate divisions that each focuses on a discreet field of environmental law, such as air pollution, water pollution, and Superfund sites. McDonald said she is especially interested in EPA’s cross-cutting office, which focuses on building legal capacity in other countries to support more robust environmental regulations.

Beyond her summer placement, McDonald said she is interested in a wide array of practice areas including appellate law, constitutional law, employment discrimination law, international law, immigration law, and public health law. She is enrolled in the Law Center's dual-degree program with the University of Texas School of Public Health.

“Ideal career options would be anything where I could combine as many of my interests as possible, like advocating for environmental-health justice at home and in developing countries or working on asylum cases for environmental refugees,” McDonald said.