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Distinguished Women in Environmental Health Sciences

The Center for a Livable Future Polly Walker Ecology Fund Lecture and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences Grand Rounds

April 15, 2014

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Science is Not Enough: Women Lead in Environmental Health

A few days before the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s death, at a lecture honoring women leaders in environmental science, a theme emerged. The idea was attributed to Carson, but repeated often by the panelists who shared their experiences as scientists: Science alone is not enough. If we want to care for the environment, we’ll need scientists with a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world.

The lecture and panel, “Distinguished Women in Environmental Health Sciences,” on April 11 at the Bloomberg School was sponsored jointly by the Center for a Livable Future Polly Walker Ecology Fund and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences Grand Rounds. The keynote speaker was Robert Musil, author of “Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women who have Shaped America’s Environment,” former executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the newly-named president of the Rachel Carson Council.

As Musil discussed ideas and details from his book, he underscored that Rachel Carson “was not alone on top of the mountain.” She was supported by, advised by, and connected to friends and colleagues who paved the way for her work in communicating the environmental dangers of the pesticide DDT. “I’d like to avoid the Great Man or Great Woman theory of history,” said Musil. “Carson, like so many others, stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Some of Carson’s friends and supporters included the environmentalist and poet Marjorie Spock, noted geneticist Raymond Pearl, and his wife Maud DeWitt Pearl, a science writer. In addition to earning a degree in biology at Johns Hopkins, Carson supported herself, her mother, and two nieces by working at the Bureau of Fisheries and at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she worked her way up to become editor in chief. “Her brochures for Fish and Wildlife were masterpieces,” said Musil.

The discussion of awe and wonder was most relevant as Musil described how Carson, unmarried and childless, took on the responsibility of raising her five-year-old great-nephew when the child’s mother died. “She took him to watch tidal pools in Maine, they went into the woods and listened to owls at night,” said Musil.

Following the lecture by Musil, six scientists—all Johns Hopkins alumnae—shared their stories and insights during the panel titled, “Distinguished Women in Environmental Health Sciences.” While discussing their work and their histories, the panelists echoed the idea that “science is not enough.” Three of the panelists—Beth Feingold, D’Ann Williams, and Sharon Nappier—are CLF-Lerner Doctoral Fellows.

Jackie Agnew, a Bloomberg School occupational safety researcher in the tradition of Anna Baetjer, described growing up amidst the family business of growing flowers. Amy Sapkota, an associate professor at University of Maryland, discussed her mother’s intense dedication to teaching her children about the natural wonders, and Lynn Goldman, the dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health, shared stories about growing up near Galveston, Texas, where she watched populations of pelicans and dolphins flourish, then decline, and then begin to flourish again.

Agnew’s current work focuses on evaluating the occupational stressors of populations such as Latino day workers and Vietnamese nail salon workers. Sapkota’s work merges microbiology, exposure assessment, and environmental epidemiology. Goldman has a long career protecting environmental health, having worked for some time in the EPA on chemicals and safety, and as a researcher and professor in environmental health.

Another panelist, D’Ann Williams, who works a research associate at the Bloomberg School, spoke about her circuitous path, which includes a stint as a goldsmith. She worked at Ground Zero, investigating air quality, after 9/11 and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to assess environmental health factors there. Beth Feingold, currently at Duke University, described how her work as a geologist merges with environmental science, and shared some of her work in the Peruvian Amazon. Sharon Nappier, a microbiologist at EPA, discussed her work evaluating water quality, as well as some of her past work on water access in Africa and research into the non-native oyster species that was almost introduced into the Chesapeake Bay.

Concluding the panel, Goldman urged everyone to stand fast in their work to protect the environment. “Laws that protect the environment protect health,” she said. “It can take a long time, but it can happen.” If we can protect the most vulnerable, whether it’s a human species or a non-human species, she said. We’re all healthier for it.

—Christine Grillo