Election Reflections: Women in Science

It goes without saying that the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election was a shock. I will avoid a long-winded discussion of the associated consequences and just acknowledge that we came painfully close to electing the first female president of the country.

In the weeks leading up to the election, I had felt a contagious energy among my female friends – a great hope that we could have a role model in the highest office of the country.

I don’t have presidential aspirations, however. So, upon further reflection, I realized that much more important to my own growth and ambitions has been the presence of female role models in my field of environmental health sciences. Unlike for my mother, who had few women role models in her early days in public health, I feel fortunate to have numerous, highly successful female scientists to look up to. Because of these inspiring women (including my mother!), I have never doubted the possibility that I can achieve my professional goals.

Perhaps my earliest model of a female scientist and change-maker was Rachel Carson, whose pioneering environmental work I learned about during elementary school. While I probably did not understand the full scope of her impact at that young age, I was evidently motivated enough by her story to dress up as Carson during career day.

Years later, during college, I read Our Stolen Future, an eye-opening book that Al Gore has referred to as a sequel to Carson’s Silent Spring. Who better to learn from about endocrine disruption than the late Theo Colborn, co-author of this book and a visionary leader who is often called the “mother of endocrine disruption?” Reading this work provided immediate clarity and direction to my undergraduate studies. After college, as I began to further immerse myself in the world of environmental health at Environmental Defense Fund, I became increasingly inspired by the work of Colborn and the many other contemporary female scientists who are shaping the field.

Women are leading some of today’s most important science policy and advocacy efforts, and I have had the privilege to interact with several of these amazing individuals. I greatly admire Sarah Vogel (Environmental Defense Fund) Ruthann Rudel (Silent Spring Institute), Jennifer Sass (Natural Resources Defense Council), and Molly Rauch (Moms Clean Air Force), among others, for their efforts to promote the translation of strong science into health protective policies.

All science is a team effort, of course, but female scientists across the country have led many of the studies that these and other organizations draw upon in their public health work.

  • Ruthann and her team at Silent Spring Institute have conducted important and innovative work related to endocrine-active chemicals and breast cancer risk.
  • North Carolina has the preeminent Heather Duo: Heather Stapleton at Duke University, who researches routes of exposure to flame retardants, and Heather Patisaul, at North Carolina State University, who is examining the effects of chemical exposures on the neuroendocrine (brain & hormonal) system.
  • Dana Dolinoy, at the University of Michigan, is a leading expert in epigenetics (changes in how a gene is expressed rather than a change in the genetic code itself).
  • Tracey Woodruff and her team at the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment have done extensive work in diverse areas, ranging from advancing methods for systematic review to assessing prenatal chemical exposures.
  • Frederica Perera, at Columbia University, pioneered the field of molecular epidemiology (using specific biomarkers to understand the link between environmental exposures and disease).
  • Irva Hertz-Picciotto, at the University of California, Davis is a top environmental epidemiologist with a particular focus on the environmental factors that contribute to autism. (She recently co-founded Project TEDNR, a collaborative initiative involving scientists, policy-makers, and advocates that aims to reduce exposures to neurotoxicants.)

I could go on and on (and on), but you get the idea. Women are making waves in environmental health sciences through their robust, cutting-edge research.

Government is no exception. I am excited by the work of early career scientists, such as Tamara Tal, who is conducting innovative toxicological studies in zebrafish at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Kelly Ferguson, an environmental epidemiologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) who studies how chemical exposures during pregnancy impact child health and development. And, I am inspired by the many women who are leaders within these agencies, such as Elaine Cohen-Hubal (Integrated Systems Toxicology Division, EPA), Kristina Thayer (Office of Health Assessment and Translation, NIEHS) Dale Sandler (Chronic Disease Epidemiology, NIEHS), and Nicole Kleinstreuer (National Toxicology Program Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods, NIEHS).

We also have two phenomenal and highly accomplished women leading our environmental and public health agencies: Gina McCarthy (EPA) and Linda Birnbaum (NIEHS).

These are all women who I look up to tremendously and whose work I follow closely. But, on a more personal level, I have been fortunate to work directly with several amazing female scientists during my training so far. Pamela Lein (University of California, Davis) Stephanie Padilla (EPA), Elaine Faustman (University of Washington, Seattle), Sheela Sathyanarayana (University of Washington, Seattle), and Lianne Sheppard (University of Washington, Seattle) have all provided valuable mentorship and guidance to me.

So, while we do not yet have our first female president, this post is my way of acknowledging all of the incredible female scientists who have impacted my life through their work in environmental health sciences. Because of these inspiring, accomplished women (and the numerous others who I have not mentioned for the sake of brevity), I do not feel limited when I imagine my future. I have confidence that, with hard work and dedication, I can achieve what I set my mind to.

Thank you for being role models to me and the many other aspiring environmental health scientists of my generation!

Me, in elementary school, already aspiring to follow in Rachel Carson’s footsteps