Derek Hillis doesn't want to be pigeonholed

Our Senior Environmental Scientist has a passion for ensuring a healthy workplace.

Derek Hillis standing Derek Hillis, Ph.D., CIH, QPRA, Senior Environmental Scientist

Working on a variety of farms in Lambton County since his youth, Derek Hillis knows the value of a long day of tough manual labour. Deciding he did not want to work on the farm, Derek checked out his local college for alternative careers as he was finishing up high school.

“There was a college program that I knew was getting lots of people hired and I could drive there so I didn’t have to pay rent, which was important, because working fulltime on the farm paid only $4.95 an hour,” he recalls.

The program that caught Derek’s attention was an Industrial Hygiene Technology course being offered at Lambton College of Applied Arts and Technology.

“I had a strong interest once I got involved, because industrial hygiene is focused on the protection of human health in the workplace from chemical, biological and physical hazards. By my late teens I had seen my fair share of accidents and injuries as well as the health impacts that may occur from various occupational hazards such as pesticides, mould and grain dust; as well as noise,” he says. “Once I started the program and saw where it was going, I was pretty excited and interested to be in it.”

After graduating with his diploma in 1997, Derek continued his education at Western University earning two bachelor of science degrees in environmental science and then biology while working in the field of industrial hygiene.

“After I graduated from university, I worked as both an industrial hygienist, but also was establishing myself as a field ecologist,” he says. “People like boxes and I struggled to fit into a single career path, as every employer either saw me as an industrial hygienist or an ecologist, but not both.”

Not satisfied with this outcome, Derek began brainstorming options where he could take his combined education and experience and use them together in one career.

“I needed some kind of unifying career direction and I found that in toxicology and risk assessment,” he says. “In risk assessment, we are evaluating the potential for an environmental stressor to impact not just on human health, but also ecological structure and function.”

“I’ve never been surrounded by so many smart people in one place at one time, it’s humbling.”
Derek Hillis kayaking

In 2004, Derek went back to school and did his Ph.D. in Environmental Biology and Toxicology at the University of Guelph evaluating the risk of human and veterinary pharmaceuticals on the environment. He graduated in 2008 and began working as a Senior Environmental Scientist and Risk Assessor for several large companies and a start-up before joining the Ecometrix team in 2020.

Derek was attracted to Ecometrix because of the company’s flexibility when it came to the projects he could manage and work on.

I can play in all the sandboxes I want to. I am not pigeonholed as an industrial hygienist, ecologist, or risk assessor,” he says. “I am supported to complete projects I most want to take on.”

Derek says the most enjoyable part of his time at Ecometrix has been the camaraderie he’s experienced with his colleagues.

“I can play in all the sandboxes I want to. I am not pigeonholed as an industrial hygienist, ecologist, or risk assessor.”

“I’ve never been surrounded by so many smart people in one place at one time, it’s humbling,” he says. “I haven’t met anyone at this company that isn’t pretty modest. There’s a lot more camaraderie here than in larger companies.”

No matter the industry, Derek’s favourite part of his role is helping clients solve their problems, especially when those projects have to do with ensuring a safe and healthy environment.

“Whenever you have an immediate impact protecting somebody’s health or the environment, it’s really rewarding,” he says. “It makes you feel a little bit like a superhero, and our clients are extremely grateful that you’ve provided a solution to what they often see as an insurmountable problem.”