Alumni Profile: Michael Neely, BS Chemistry ’76

Alumnus Michael Neeely sat down with us to talk about career shifts and his retirement in our latest Alumni Profile. 

Mike Neely displays his Mason pride with his wife, Jo-Ann. Photo courtesy of Michael Neely.

Mike Neely displays his Mason pride with his wife. Photo courtesy of Michael Neely.

Name: Michael Neely

Mason Degree: BS, Chemistry 1976

Occupation: Retired Analytical Support Group manager at CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company

My favorite Mason memory is…being fortunate enough to have Dr. Robert F. Cozzens as my college mentor and having the opportunity to support his research at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) while I was attending Mason.

Professionally, I’m most proud because…before I retired, I was part of a multi-disciplinary team at Hanford, whose mission is to characterize and clean up one of the most contaminated (both chemically and radiologically) sites in our nation. The Hanford team is developing and deploying state of the art pump and treat (P&T) technologies for remediating contaminated ground water, and then re-injecting the clean water back into the aquifer. This cleanup project is still ongoing; however, when the cleanup is complete, and the Hanford site is restored to its original pristine condition, I will be proud to say that I was part of the team that achieved that remarkable accomplishment.

I advise current students to…maintain contact with fellow students and faculty. I can’t stress it enough – network, network, network! It will be instrumental in a career pursuit.

An interesting fact about me is that…I was an avid runner, running in marathons (26.2 miles) and ultra-marathons (50 miles). However, in 2011, I had surgery on my cervical spine and my lumbar spine, and the doctor advised me not to run again. So, I now walk for approximately 15 miles every day. I use my walking time for my prayer and meditation time.

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The extended COS interview with Michael Neely:

In your bio, you mentioned that you worked with Versar in Virginia and California. Was the job the only reason you relocated?
Yes, the job at Versar was the only reason that I relocated to the West Coast. I started working at Versar, Inc., in 1978. In 1985, Versar was interested in expanding their environmental services to the West Coast, and they were looking for someone to move to the West Coast and set up Versar’s West Coast Operations. Since I was raised in the Northern Virginia area, and at the point in time I had spent 33 years of my life there, I was ready for a change. So, I threw my “name in the hat” along with several other candidates for the West Coast Operations Manager position. In October, 1985, my wife and our two young daughters relocated to Sacramento, CA, where I set up and established Versar’s West Coast Operations. This was one of the most challenging, but yet most rewarding positions, of my professional career.

How was it different than working on the East Coast?
Working on the West Coast is different than the East Coast in that the work environment seems more relaxed and casual, with a wide variety of schedules and “flex” time designed to meet the personal needs of the employee. The dress code is also more casual as well. I can remember my first day on the job at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA; I wore a necktie to work. Within the first hour on the job, I was told that the necktie has got to go!

Why’d you stay on the West Coast?
We have stayed on the West Coast, although we relocated from Sacramento, CA to Richland, WA in 1990, because we enjoy the climate [i.e., little to no humidity, mild winters, very little rain (less than six inches a year in Richland, WA), etc.], the variety of outdoor activities, and the slower, relaxed pace.  

What did you do at your PNNL “desk job”?
My “desk job” at PNNL consisted of being the Program Manager for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) GroundWater and Compliance Monitoring Program. As the PNNL RCRA groundwater monitoring Program Manager, I was responsible for managing a multi-disciplinary team whose goal was to collect water samples from groundwater monitoring wells located throughout the 560 square mile Hanford site. The groundwater samples were analyzed at both on-site and off-site analytical laboratories to quantify the levels of contamination (both chemical and radiological) to determine the extent of migration of the contaminants from their source.

How did you begin working in the environmental sector?
I began working in the environmental sector with my first job, at Versar in 1978. I was managing a project where Versar was under contract to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to collect samples of fish, water, and sediment and analyze the samples for what the EPA at that time called  the “129 priority pollutants”. This project gave me a real understanding of the fact that what we put into our environment (i.e., dumping in the dirt, storm drain, etc.) will eventually make its way into our lakes, rivers, streams, fish, and sediment, where its impact can become devastating to aquatic life, as well as to human life through the food chain. As a result of this first job, I knew that I wanted to continue in the environmental sector, and do whatever I could do to ensure that we continue to be good stewards of our environment.

After working in the environmental sector, what made you decide to become a police officer?
Well, my wife refers to that phase of my life as my “mid-life crisis”, since I was 43 years of age when I decided to make such a drastic career change. She often jokes and wonders why I didn’t just buy a little red sports car like most men going through that phase. To be honest, I have never felt such a strong calling in my life. God was speaking to me about this, and I could see the end result (me being a police officer) so clearly. Even though my wife didn’t understand this, she supported me throughout — that’s what you call true love. God removed any possible obstacles in my way in order to make this happen, and in November, 1996, I was sworn in as a police officer. It just didn’t make sense to me though – it was the absolute worst time for me to take a $50,000 cut in pay with my oldest daughter getting ready to go off to college. And, I didn’t know why I felt this calling so strongly until years later.

Shortly after I became a police officer my mother, who lived in Maryland at the time, was diagnosed with dementia which progressed to Alzheimer’s Disease. As a result, we moved my mother to an assisted living facility near me. The thing about being a police officer is that they work 12-hour shifts, and have lots of time off (i.e., in every two-week period, one week they work five days, and the next week they work two days). As a result, I was able to spend lots of quality time with my mother before she passed away. In fact, when I wasn’t working, I spent the entire day with my mother, and usually ate at least two meals a day with her at her table in the assisted living dining room.  

The other residents saw me there so much, they thought I was one of the staff members. They would ask me to change the batteries in their TV remotes, set their digital clocks when the time changed, etc. God granted me this blessing to have a job (as a police officer) with so much time off, which gave me the opportunity to spend so much quality time with my mother, and really get to know and love her during those last years of her life, that just would not have been possible with a normal “9 to 5” desk job. After my mother passed away, I then went back to work in the environmental sector.

Was your PNNL role at all related to your role as an officer?
No, my role at PNNL was in no way related to my role as a police officer. At PNNL, I was a Program Manager with a “desk job”, and at the police department I was “street cop” in a patrol vehicle responsible for the protection of life, property, and the enforcement of federal, state, and local laws and ordinances.

You mentioned that you volunteer now that you’re retired. Do you volunteer for any science-related organizations?
No, I have not volunteered for any “science-related” organizations now that I am retired. And, that has been by design. I wanted to try new things during my retirement years (i.e., my “bonus” years) that are totally different than what I was doing for my “9 to 5” job for 37 years. So, I volunteer with the local school district where I work with the youth. I also volunteer at our local Hospice House. I have found that these volunteer activities allow me to contact individuals who are so open, so honest, and so “in the moment”. I find that very “refreshing”, and I find that I can learn so much from these volunteer positions, and the people that I come in contact with through them.