Gómez is a recipient of the 2022 CC DuBois Alumni Service Award.
J. Alfredo Gómez, AM'91

For a person whose work focuses on hazardous waste, contaminated water, and widespread natural disasters, J. Alfredo Gómez, AM’91, has a pretty sunny disposition. He can talk at length about, say, the economic and public health dangers of toxic algal blooms with the same enthusiasm that others might debate the Chicago White Sox’s chances of winning the pennant this year. “I get to work with smart people, the stakeholders and experts,” says Gómez, a winner of the 2022 CC DuBois Alumni Service Award. “And we come up with good ways to improve government on all these topics that are relevant to current policy problems. What could be better?”

This enthusiastic approach explains the role Gómez plays in helping the U.S. government’s environmental protection policy. As the Director of the Natural Resources and Environment team of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the 1991 Harris School graduate manages a team of more than 30 public experts. He routinely testifies before Congress as an objective, nonpartisan agent with no political agenda beyond keeping the government informed—and honest—on environmental and natural resource issues. In doing so, he see himself as fulfilling GAO’s mission—as helping Congress carry out its oversight responsibilities. “My focus is on looking for ways to improve federal programs,” says Gómez. “That and saving your tax dollars.”

It’s through this work, and his enduring connection to the Harris School of Public Policy, that Gómez is an ideal recipient of the DuBois award. “I’ve really been grateful for what I got at Harris, which is a great education and a great network of alumni,” says Gómez, who served on the Harris Alumni Council and was the chair of the careers and networks committee. “Since I graduated, I’ve always been committed to a relationship with the Harris school through its alums but also students.”

A native of Los Herreras, Mexico, Gómez was already a ten-year-old math whiz when his family moved to Houston, Texas. Not long after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Rice University, where he was the only Latino in his department, he enrolled at UChicago. During his years in Hyde Park, Gómez found himself on the receiving end of Harris’ mentorship program. His mentor, Craig Kennedy, AB ’74, AM/MBA ’80, president of the Joyce Foundation at the time, cleared his calendar once a month to meet with his new protégé.

“He had an important job, but he always made time for me to talk about what I was interested in doing,” remembers Gómez. “It was the best mentor relationship that I could have: someone that was in high places, very respected, and willing to talk informally.” Through Kennedy’s advice and connections, Gómez landed an internship at the Environmental Defense Fund in Berkeley, California. It was the start of a long career in environmental work that eventually took him to his current position at GAO.

Three decades later, for dozens of Harris students, Gómez has been a go-to mentor, going out of his way to make time for them. Helping to plot their career paths; providing valuable introductions to movers and shakers in their fields; staying connected over the years; plugging them into the school’s alumni network—basically, all the ways Kennedy helped him. “I really appreciate the mentor program, so giving back as a mentor is important to me,” he says. “Sometimes all these students are looking for is someone to talk to. I remember that feeling.”

And it was at Harris that Gómez learned, and honed, the “unsexy” skills that makes him so good at his job: a methodological, data-driven approach that focuses on thorough mathematical and scientific facts. “We work for Congress.  Both parties recognize that GAO is a nonpartisan agency that they can go to with questions,” Gómez says. “You may not like the answer, but we’re going to give you a non-biased, data-driven, analytical response for what we see as the issues.”

Cynthia "CC" DuBois (1985-2018) was a 2010 graduate of the MPP program who helped found the Harris Alumni Council and served as its president.

For example, in 2019, GAO mapped the most hazardous waste sites around the country according to the federal Superfund program, then overlaid that map with climate change hazards or risks. The project included data from the Forest Service on wildfire risk, FEMA on flood zones, and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on storm surges and sea level rise. Gómez’s team synthesized all this data to generate interactive maps that would pinpoint the most vulnerable areas. “People were like, What? The Superfund site in my neighborhood actually sits in a 100-year floodplain!” recalls Gómez.

The maps included an old mine site in Northern California that was affected by a wildfire, which almost destroyed the water treatment system in place to treat the acid mine runoff. If the system had failed, the runoff would have flowed into a nearby river and contaminated it with metals that are toxic to aquatic life. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, another Superfund site flooded in Houston, Texas, dispersing dioxins that cause cancer and liver and nerve damage. In both cases, after talking to the to the community, the industry involved, the state regulators, and the EPA, the GAO made recommendations to help ensure that the project managers on site incorporate climate effects into their decision. “We ask, What is the EPA doing to ensure that the contaminants at those sites are well contained, treated, or removed?” Gómez says.

Per the GAO website, since 2003 the organization has made 84 recommendations and suggested six matters for congressional consideration related to climate resilience and limiting the federal government's fiscal exposure to climate change. While natural disasters in the U.S. have caused nearly $150 billion in damages per year over the past five years, the effects of climate change will likely push that amount even higher. “As taxpayers, we end up paying for all the disasters that are taking place across the country,” says Gómez. “We know more of these events are going to take place. So the question is: How can we better prepare the federal government to respond when they do?”

When Gómez testifies in Senate and House hearings, he comes prepared with statistics, facts, and rigorous analysis. Simply put, there is no denying his authority on the subject at hand. He would be the first to say that his ability to thrive in this kind of government work traces back to his experience at Harris three decades ago, refined in classrooms where he soaked up statistics, policy analysis, and micro- and macro-economics. Gómez recalls taking advantage of every campus seminar and speaker he could, while also enrolling in a broad array of classes at the Booth School of Business, the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics, and the Pritzker School of Medicine.

“The graduate programs at UChicago give you a set of curricula that’s going to make you a better critical thinker,” he says. “And the training at Harris was perfect for what I do at GAO. In fact, GAO is almost a continuation of what I was doing at Harris. UChicago gave me the tool set to allow me to think in this way.”