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Inside NRDC
Photo of NRDC scientists at the Albert Einstein memorial in Washington.
FIELDWORK

Science to the Rescue

A band of researchers embarks on a quest for the incontrovertible truth

Over the past several years, Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science winners, and eminent government scientists have emerged from their laboratories to protest the censorship and suppression of science by the Bush administration and to decry the emphasis on ideology and commerce over the plain truth. Climate and public health experts have been gagged, their funding has been curtailed, and federal advisory committees that guide government policy on complex, often controversial issues have been stacked with industry cronies.

More than ever, protecting human health and the environment requires that all interested parties-including the public-have access to complete, unbiased information. With the generous support of trustee Tom Roush, NRDC has recently established a Science Center dedicated to analyzing and synthesizing data on critical issues and making this knowledge available to policy makers and the public. To accomplish that, the center funds two-year fellowships for scientists who excel in applying their expertise to real-world problems. Here's what they're up to.


Gabriela Chavarria, director

EXPERTISE: Entomology, invasive species, illegal wildlife trade

INSPIRATION: Bugs. As a child, Chavarria stored her insect collection in glass jars and stashed them in the medicine cabinet. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in entomology at Harvard, studying neotropical bumblebees under the tutelage of the celebrated biologist E. O. Wilson. These days her expertise extends well beyond insects. Before moving to NRDC last November, Chavarria was vice president of science and international conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, where her work focused on regulating the global migration of plants and animals-both as accidental stowaways and as intentionally smuggled contraband.

GOAL: To help establish NRDC as an honest disseminator of scientific information from researchers to government officials, lawmakers, and business groups.

THE JOB: Chavarria coordinates the work of NRDC's rotating band of scientific experts. Few advocacy organizations have the resources to employ Ph.D.-level scientists, so Chavarria makes the most of the opportunity by guiding the application of cutting-edge science to problems ranging from figuring out how to capture and store carbon dioxide to rehabilitating our beleaguered oceans.


Sarah Janssen, public health fellow

EXPERTISE: Toxins that interfere with hormonal function in the endocrine system

INSPIRATION: Her community. While she was studying for her M.D. and Ph.D. in reproductive biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Janssen's neighbors came to her for help in stopping the local hospital's medical waste incinerator from spewing dioxin, mercury, and other toxic substances into the environment. She learned that such incinerators are the nation's single largest source of dioxin pollution. Janssen helped organize city council hearings, where she met activists whose dedication to the cause inspired her career in public and environmental health.

GOAL: To advance government policy regulating endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Endocrine disruptors are a prime suspect behind a panoply of public health mysteries: Studies are beginning to link them to genital deformities in newborn boys, reduced sperm function in men, and increased incidence of miscarriage in women.

THE JOB: Janssen analyzes published data on endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly found in the marketplace, including lindane, which is the active ingredient in certain head-lice shampoos, and phthalates, which are plasticizing compounds found in everything from nail polish and perfume to the rubber duck floating in your bathtub. In collaboration with a group of fertility researchers, she is writing a review of the scientific literature on reproductive damage from exposure to endocrine disruptors.


George Peridas, climate fellow

EXPERTISE: Carbon capture and storage

INSPIRATION: The Mediterranean Sea. Peridas was born in Athens to a family of engineers with a penchant for sailing. Lax environmental standards had wreaked havoc on the splendor of Greece and its famous isles, and Peridas's childhood experiences sailing from the port city had a profound effect on his view of the environment. After earning his Ph.D. in engineering, he went on to study environmental science.

GOAL: To promote the mainstream adoption of carbon capture and storage technologies as a means to curb global warming

THE JOB: Peridas digests the latest research on carbon capture and storage, from complex studies of engineering and geology to policy and regulatory issues, such as how to properly monitor carbon repositories. His findings will help environmental advocates, policy makers, and business leaders utilize carbon capture and storage to mitigate global warming without threatening human health or the environment.


Lisa Suatoni, oceans fellow

EXPERTISE: Evolutionary biology of marine invertebrates

INSPIRATION: Jacques Cousteau. Growing up in landlocked Pittsburgh, Suatoni didn't see the ocean until she was 10, but Cousteau had already inspired her. By 15, she was scuba diving as a research assistant with scientists in the Caribbean.

GOAL: To advise government officials on the implementation of a management and conservation plan that is protective of the entire food chain. Figuring out how to heal any one swath of the sea involves solving a complex, multidimensional puzzle. The solution is ecosystem-based management: Protect all creatures, no matter how lowly and insignificant they seem, and the entire food chain will benefit, all the way up to the top predators-humans.

THE JOB: Suatoni studies peer-reviewed data to evaluate a given marine area, then works with policy experts to translate that information into guidelines for the management of fisheries and the larger ecosystems to which they belong. Fishermen see that their catches are dwindling, but only scientists are able to understand what's happening beneath the ocean surface.


Sylvia Fallon, public lands fellow

EXPERTISE: Conservation genetics and evolutionary ecology

INSPIRATION: The Rockies. Fallon's fondest childhood memories are of time spent outdoors with her family near their Denver home. Her appreciation for the natural world led her to study biology in college, although the seeds of her career didn't germinate until later, when she was working at Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology with Paul Ehrlich, the biologist best known for his theories on human overpopulation. Fallon was inspired to return to school and eventually to apply her knowledge to conservation work; she earned a Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics at the University of Missouri.

GOAL: To improve our understanding of how the genetic profile of a species or subpopulation affects its status under the Endangered Species Act. This landmark law was passed in 1973, long before scientists began applying DNA findings to the listing (or delisting) of endangered species, so there are no guidelines for how genetics should be used.

THE JOB: When an endangered species listing decision is proposed, part of Fallon's job is to examine genetic studies of the species and its closest relatives. She then submits comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service, offering her expert opinion on whether the data show that protection is deserved, and whether they are even sufficient to make a decision based on genetics.
-- Kathryn McGrath


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Photo caption: Team science: (from left) Sylvia Fallon, George Peridas, Gabriela Chavarria, Lisa Suatoni. Not shown: Sarah Janssen.

Photo: Katherine Lambert

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council