The Scientist Who Helps Us Visualize—and Act on—the Facts

Sometimes you have to wade through a lot of data to see the big picture, but Kristi Pullen Fedinick sees beauty in the details.

Kristi Pullen Fedinick, NRDC’s chief science officer, at the Potomac River in Washington D.C., October 1, 2021

Credit: Greg Kahn for NRDC

When Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick played in a marching band as a kid growing up in Maryland, she recalls how during chilly October football games, her music teachers would constantly remind students to keep their instruments warm. “I remember thinking, I know they are saying cold instruments go out of tune, but is it really true?” she says. “By the time I was in high school, I’d heard it so often, I wanted to understand it.”

Ever curious, the young Pullen Fedinick designed an experiment for her science fair project. She created a rudimentary flute by drilling holes in copper tubing. Using an instrument tuner, she conducted various tuning tests with a hair dryer and a bucket of ice to change the temperature of the metal flute. Not only did she confirm her teachers’ theory, she also scored high praise for her ingenuity—and the experience highlighted an important life lesson: “I don’t just have to accept what someone tells me,” Pullen Fedinick says. “I can test it.”

The experience of being able to test a hypothesis and elucidate a problem sent Pullen Fedinick on a lifelong trajectory in the sciences. When she was an undergraduate and member of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County studying biochemistry and molecular biology, she was drawn to research. In graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, Pullen Fedinick focused her attention on structural biology and biophysics. She studied the way a key protein in tuberculosis functioned, and she relished the moment of being able to see a molecule that had previously only been imagined. “I loved the idea of seeing the world in all its complexity but then being able to narrow it down into smaller chunks that you can try to figure out and understand,” she says.

In addition to the thrill of discovery, the ability to graphically present her findings in a way that resonates with a wide audience also motivated Pullen Fedinick’s career path. “I'm really drawn to the ways we can visualize data and communicate the story it tells to the public,” she says. That interest helped guide her toward working in partnership with policy advocates.

After finishing her postdoctoral research in 2009, Pullen Fedinick took a job as the sole staff scientist at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, based in Chicago. There, she began to work on air quality and drinking water issues, researching how different communities were at risk. With no federal database available for the public to investigate where drinking water contamination events were taking place, she set out to build the tool herself.

It was around this time that Pullen Fedinick taught herself a geographic information system (GIS), a digital program that allows people to create, analyze, and map all types of data. Her efforts paid off: The newly learned tools helped her identify communities in Chicago that were hot spots for poor air quality, such as those neighborhoods surrounded by dirty industry on the city’s South Side. “Creating these maps helped communicate what was happening to these communities in more visual ways,” she says. “At the time, there wasn’t as much awareness in the mainstream environmental movement about the multiple overlapping threats faced by frontline communities.”

In 2014, Pullen Fedinick joined NRDC, and after about a year at the organization, she put those data visualization skills to another urgent purpose. During the summer of 2015, news was starting to come out of Flint, Michigan, about elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. The fact that the crisis was unfolding in a majority-Black city that has a long history of disinvestment, residential segregation, and discrimination struck a nerve in Pullen Fedinick. She wondered how many other low-income communities and/or communities of color might be facing similar issues.

“I wanted to be able to understand what the relationships could be between race, income, and other social factors and drinking water violations,” she says. “Was there a connection between these variables in other communities, or was Flint an anomaly?”

In order to understand these questions, she dove deep into the data. She analyzed county records of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and county demographics that included race and income. Pullen Fedinick also spoke with various community partners about their experiences, an important task that data scientists often overlook, she notes.

“We need to challenge ourselves about the way we use data to help communities,” Pullen Fedinick says. “There’s more to the experience of the people than just what the numbers reveal.” To underscore her point, she notes that none of the issues with lead occurring in Flint in 2015 showed up in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database—and that the initial concerns and complaints from residents were dismissed by local and state leaders.

In 2019, the efforts of Pullen Fedinick’s team at NRDC—together with those of several partners, including the Environmental Justice Health Alliance and Coming Clean (which advocates for reforms to the chemical and energy industries)—culminated in the first-of-its-kind Watered Down Justice report. The publication proved that access to safe drinking water is based most strongly on race, a scientific conclusion that mirrors the lived experience of people of color and low-income residents all across the United States.

Pullen Fedinick is quick to point out that NRDC’s relationships with community partners play a huge role in her ability to create meaningful reports. “I like to ask myself, How can my work help advance the goals of the community?” she explains. “With the Watered Down Justice report, we didn’t discover a new problem—it had long existed. Our research just provided a different way to communicate that problem and helped elevate the experiences of people in the community.”

Pullen Fedinick’s on-the-ground approach to her work as a scientist and activist led to a recent allyship with Yvette Jordan, a schoolteacher and longtime NRDC partner in the fight for safe drinking water in Newark, New Jersey. Jordan had grown concerned about her hometown’s continued struggle with access to safe drinking water as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and sought out Pullen Fedinick’s support in writing about the issue. Together they highlighted the challenges faced by people quarantining at home but unable to safely drink from their taps or struggling to pay for bottled water when they had lost their jobs.

“Not only was Kristi receptive to working with me, but she was also extremely focused on how the article could be impactful for the community,” says Jordan, who, as an educator, understood the value of having the right visuals to communicate information. “Kristi creates these powerful maps, and they are so engaging—it's like you can see the facts. I have since spoken with news media outlets about the article, and they say, ‘This is really interesting, and we hadn't thought of the intersection of this infrastructure problem and COVID like this.’ Kristi really helped make that happen.”

Credit: Yvette Jordan, a founding member of the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus, at her home in Newark, New Jersey, May 8, 2019. The NEW Caucus and NRDC filed a citizen suit against the city of Newark and New Jersey state officials in June 2018 to secure safe drinking water for Newark residents. Demetrius Freeman for NRDC

Working with Pullen Fedinick, Jordan says, has also made her feel less alone in her advocacy work. “We connect on a personal level, and we have some things in common, not only because she is an African American woman, and I am as well, but because of our experience of living in a bubble at times, where we are the only ones in an audience of folks who do not look like us.”

The lack of diversity in her chosen profession is something that Pullen Fedinick is keenly aware of. “If I were a 15-year-old Kristi looking at big green environmental organizations today, I wouldn’t see them as places where I’d want to grow my career,” she says. “We know from empirical evidence that big green organizations have a diversity problem.” Mainstream environmental organizations must be guided by people from all walks of life, she adds, particularly by leaders that have not historically had a seat at the table. “We can’t see the world as it is and solve the complex issues we are facing if everyone is looking through the same lens.”

During Pullen Fedinick’s nearly eight years at NRDC, she has maintained a very active role in helping shape its diversity, equity, and inclusion journey. “I think the organization still has a ways to go,” she says, describing the imperative to identify the policies and practices that may inhibit achieving greater diversity within the organization and the broader movement. “My hope is that we can help expand our understanding of what we mean when we say environment. In order to do that, we have to deepen our connections with the people most impacted by the issues we work on and embrace leadership of all types, regardless of title and position.”

Recently, Pullen Fedinick has taken on two new leadership roles herself. In June, she accepted the job as NRDC’s first ever chief science officer. As the organization continues to advocate for evidence-based public policies, Pullen Fedinick is eager to not only help guide the science that catalyzes those strategies but also to enhance her colleagues’ shared mission to help shape a healthier and more sustainable future. “One of the things I love about science is that it helps us create a shared understanding of the world around us,” she says. “I am really looking forward to exploring the ways that science and information connect us and then leveraging those connections to bring about an accelerated pace of positive change.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan during a tour of the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Water Lab in Flint, Michigan, July 7, 2021
Credit: Jake May/Flint Journal via AP Images

In August, Pullen Fedinick was appointed by EPA administrator Michael Regan to serve on the newly reconstituted Science Advisory Board, which the Trump administration had previously (and unlawfully) stacked with industry insiders. As a member of the advisory board, she and fellow appointees will advise the agency on scientific and technical issues that inform its work. In the face of the recent code-red climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as revelations about the enormous scale of the nation’s drinking water crisis, the work before Pullen Fedinick and the committee is increasingly urgent.

“We are at a critical time in the existence of humanity,” Pullen Fedinick says, “so any opportunity to provide advice and support on solutions to the problems faced by people, ecosystems, and the planet is one that I eagerly, yet humbly, take on with open eyes and a full heart.”

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