What was my biggest obstacle?
Initially, my biggest obstacle was me. Both of my parents had medical backgrounds and my father was a pediatric immunologist and clinical researcher. I was more than a bit intimidated by the very advanced level of science that surrounded the household as a child. I somehow developed the idea that I could not learn and understand biological sciences, and thus was initially attracted to a career in mathematics. Later, being a woman was an obstacle because, at the time that I trained in medicine, some of the male faculty (as one told me) "could not reconcile the idea of women in medicine." Usually, this opposition manifested itself in a less blatant fashion but even today I am aware of men who are not comfortable with women in positions of power.
How do I make a difference?
I think that I have a number of strategies. First, I am very determined and not afraid to try to solve problems even when there are numerous obstacles and issues are contentious. My mother had a deep spiritual sense about religion and nature, and nurturing others that she transmitted to me. This deeper sense of what is important has helped to sustain me through many rocky times. Also, I have tried hard to share (or even to give) credit to others when my efforts have been successful. I think that I am a good listener; in the policy arena, it is helpful to be open to all the ideas that are brought forward and to be flexible in crafting solutions and in working with others to achieve consensus. It is also important to be willing to compromise, and to be patient since the most important changes occur over longer time spans. I have been able to keep up with a range of science areas (and contribute in small ways) that have helped advance policies in areas that can be very complex (and unclear) technically. Along the way I developed some skills in leadership and in organizing complex efforts. Ironically, it didn't hurt that I had a disease (endometriosis) that prevented me from becoming pregnant so that much of my energies could be devoted to creativity at work. Although I suffered a lot of pain, it never interfered with my ability to work hard. Finally, I have been able to cling to two things that have kept me going over time, first, a strong desire to make the world a better place and second a sense of humor. Both of these I learned from my father.
Who was your mentor?
Unfortunately, I never found one senior person who took an interest in fostering my career. However, several people who have mentored me over time. First and foremost, my father has been a wonderful mentor, sounding board, and moral compass for me through life. He provided a role model of treating others with respect and compassion, as well as humility and strong ethical principles. Second, would be three of my college professors at Berkeley: my advisor, Richard Garcia (who believed in me and encouraged me to apply to medical school); Arnold Schultz (who taught me ecology and, more importantly, how to think broadly about problems); my employer Ida Hoos (who taught me about the limits of engineering assessments in addressing social issues) and Henrick Blum (who got me fired up about health policy). Third, a number of people have been generous with advice and guidance when I needed it, to mention a few (in roughly chronological order): Bert Lubin, Bev Paigen, John Harris, Richard Jackson, Alex Kelter, Ken Kizer, George Rutherford, Owen Olpin, Molly Coye, Mary Nichols, and Phil Lee.
How has your career evolved over time?
It seems that my career has been in a constant state of evolution. I worked during college as a waitress, in campus libraries and as a clerical assistant for a professor at Berkeley, Ida Hoos. These jobs helped support my education but they also gave me a sense of how hard people work, in jobs in which they (waitresses especially) are paid very little. I did a fair amount of volunteer work. I worked as a volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic during a time when I was taking a two-year break from college. The next year, I shared the job of Clinic Administrator. I was 22 years old at the time, and, needless to say, learned many valuable lessons about managing people, meetings, boards, and budgets, as well as fund raising and political activity (along with the other community clinics in the area) with county government. Later, in medical school, I volunteered for an occupational health clinic and for a group in Oakland called the Coalition to Fight Infant Mortality. My role with the coalition was to help put together a newsletter that was used in efforts to generate political activity in neighborhoods that had disproportionately high rates of infant mortality. Then, in 1981, I completed medical school and started pediatric residency. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed working in pediatrics in a hospital based setting and this is the only time I came close to changing my mind about a career in environmental health. The experience at Children's was wonderful in that we had many patients, from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. It was a privilege to learn first hand, from my young patients and their families, about the relationship between an individual's life circumstances and his or her health. For the second year of residency Dr. Bert Lubin, who directed the research laboratory, offered me the chance to do a research fellowship, with Beverly Paigen in a study of health impacts on children of residence near a large hazardous waste site in New York called Love Canal. Bev was a wonderful colleague, and I learned a lot about the process of research and data analysis in that effort. Our publications on childhood growth and birth weight were pioneering ones in this area, but, unfortunately, could not be published in mainstream medical and environmental journals due to the skepticism of reviewers at that time. (Today, they no longer are controversial.)
Along the way, a very important thing happened which is that in 1997 my husband and I adopted a 10-month old girl named Hannah. Hannah brought great joy into my life and helped to establish a new balance in which more time would be spent in family-oriented activities and less time on travel and work. She has everyday taught me of some of the lessons I learned from Mom and Dad about respect for others, compassion and love. She reminds me everyday of how precious is our natural environment and why we need to protect the planet, so that she and her generation will have the same opportunity that we have had to be successful.
In mid-2000 I made the transition to tenured professor. Little did I realize how challenging it would be to create a career in academia, in a soft money environment. For the first couple of years, it was a struggle, learning how to put together an agenda for my academic pursuits, learning how to lead a course, and so forth. At present, my work is focused on environmental health policy, public health preparedness, and children's environmental health. I am engaged in efforts to develop a longitudinal cohort study of children in Maryland, in order to better understand the early environmental influences on growth, development, and subsequent disease.