Profile: Roger J. Giles

Relaxing on his sternwheeler, Roger GIles has good reason to smile — he has arguably one of the best jobs at MU: "Protect[ing] the environment from the university!"
Roger GIles has good reason to smile — he has arguably one of the best jobs at MU: “Protect[ing] the environment from the university!” (Photo credit: Dennis Dye)

Hazardous Materials Services is a branch of MU Environmental Health and Safety. This story is the first of a two-part series profiling EHS employees that contribute to on-campus sustainability, however mostly under the radar.

Fifty-eight years old, follicly challenged, and having spent nearly half his life in the same workplace, an objective account of Roger J. Giles renders him about as interesting as an investment bank’s Twitter feed.

Such a depiction, though, would be starkly inaccurate.

Just sitting Giles’ office, it’s hard to believe the man is almost three times the age of most undergraduates at MU. Upbeat indie music seeps from a Pandora station while Giles navigates his Facebook (he’s more adept at it than most his age, I should add), searching for profile-worthy photos.

But while his demeanor is youthful, the back wall of Giles’ office testifies to his years of experiences — covered with dozens of framed photographs, certificates, and some awards.

“When I do things, I tend to get really passionate,” said Giles, reminiscing on past hobbies like ultimate Frisbee™ — which he stuck with for over 30 years, founding Columbia’s club program — and paleontology, which led him on expeditions in Europe and the American West for more than a decade.

On campus, Giles serves as Manager for Hazardous Materials Services, a branch of MU Environmental Health and Safety. He oversees all of HMS’ activities, which include:

  • Preforming the majority of lab inspections on campus;
  • Collecting all hazardous waste and preparing it for outside shipping;
  • Providing oversight for any handling of hazardous materials.

“Research chemicals, diagnostic specimens, genetically modified organisms — approval for those types of shipments comes from [HMS],” he said.

Roger Giles doesn't always wear clinquant shorts, but when he does, it's while on his sternwheeler.
Roger Giles doesn’t always wear crocs and clinquant shorts; but when he does, it’s when he’s on his sternwheeler. (Photo credit: Jonathan Lauten)

Although they don’t function hand-in-hand with student sustainability, Giles and his department nonetheless play a critical role within EHS: “We protect the environment from the university,” Giles told me, “I say that somewhat flippantly, but it’s true!”

A notable example of this was in June 2010, when a biochemistry laboratory in Schweitzer Hall exploded due to a mismanaged chemical reaction involving hydrogen. The cooperation of EHS, among other MU departments, was crucial for handling the emergency safely and efficiently.

“[Emergency response] involves us coming in at odd hours sometimes… but we’re doing bleeding edge research here — sometimes things can get a little… energetic,” Giles said with a smirk.

But how exactly does Giles’ department play into sustainability? Well, HMS is a direct component of one Sustain Mizzou project in particular: E-waste drives.

Since electronic waste is a hazardous material, and recycling is regulated under state and national law, HMS typically sends staff to the E-waste drives twice per day to make sure everything meets regulatory guidelines. Also, when it comes to choosing a vendor to sell the waste to, HMS does the vetting.

“It was a local business…they’re good people,” Giles said of this year’s vendor, Mid-Mo Recycling.

Also with regard to sustainability, Giles said he’s seen a robust increase in environmental stewardship during his time at EHS, which he attributes to Vice Chancellor Jackie Jones’ consistent funding of the department.

“Jackie is an advocate for sure…” Giles said, adding that when he first started working for HMS, the department was essentially “a one-man show.” Today though, as a result of Vice Chancellor Jones’ steady funding, there are about a dozen people employed by HMS

As a manager, he admits to being more on the bureaucratic end of things now, but that doesn’t thwart Giles’ enthusiasm toward his work. The satisfaction of providing a safe work environment to MU students and faculty, the knowledge that he’s making researchers jobs’ easier, and the general freedom that comes with being manager of his own department, are what Giles deems the most rewarding aspects of his job.

By day, Roger Giles serves as Manager of MU's Hazardous Materials Services, but by night (or, more accurately, in his spare time), Giles enjoys spending time on his sternwheeler, touring the Missouri River.
By day, Roger Giles serves as Manager of MU’s Hazardous Materials Services, but by night (or, more accurately, in his spare time), Giles enjoys spending time on his sternwheeler, touring the Missouri River. (Photo credit: Rachel English)

When it comes to the stressful parts, Giles says inspections by regulatory agencies (EPA, DOT, NRC, among others) naturally produce taut nerves and that meeting deadlines is always a concern, but that HMS is “no different than the library in that respect.”

Probably helpful in alleviating any stress from the job, Giles and his wife focus their attention nowadays mainly on boating. Specifically, they are the proud owners of a sternwheeler on the Missouri River, where they give free tours to the community and host fundraisers for environmental organizations.

“Most of my personal non-work environmental interests are associated with the river… I do a lot of my recreation on the river,” Giles said.

(In fact, this charitable and progressive attitude toward their sternwheeler is what led the Columbia Missourian to publish a short story on the Giles’ and their boat last month.)

But that’s not all the Giles’ have been up to these days. Remember his aforementioned office wall, decorated with memorabilia? Tacked up among the archives, perhaps most noteworthy, is a Burning Man-themed calendar.

“Of late, [my wife and I] have kind of become part of the burner community,” Giles said, scrolling through a myriad of assorted photos from over the years.

As he further combed through his digital photo collection, I couldn’t help but see the resemblance of a young boy, rummaging through his toy chest. But while Roger Giles remains young at heart and in mind, protecting the MU community and environment from hazardous materials is a duty juxtaposed to such virtues — conferring responsibilities that only a seasoned veteran in the field can effectively uphold.

In this sense, and so many others, Roger Giles fits the a build. With the knowledge that Roger Giles oversees hazardous materials at MU, we should all feel a little bit safer.

If you’ve read this far, you definitely deserve to see this picture of Giles at Burning Man 2010. Though he’s nearing sixty, you’d never guess it by his physique alone. (Photo credit: Barbara Giles)