Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Sara Wylie, PhD
Sara Wylie, PhD developed an interest in science from a young age, having grown up with two developmental biologists as parents. As she got older and started asking her own questions, her focus turned to how chemicals, especially those that look like hormones to the body, can shape the life course. As she went through school and studied to be an anthropologist of science, these interests grew even more complex.
“I got really interested in how our research and how our scientific infrastructure can kind of … miss the fact that many of the synthetic chemicals that we have come to depend upon for food production, for plastics, for making lawns, how they could be derailing the development of fetuses and embryos. [This] is really what motivated me to first study environmental health,” Dr. Wylie shares.
In doing more research since, she started generating similar questions about larger companies.
“I have been really interested in how we sort of settled as a society for the idea that companies can disclose or self-report what they have emitted, and how that disclosure or public knowledge being presented on a website is actually informing the public. I think frequently people don’t have any idea these websites exist, and even if they did know they exist, they wouldn’t know how to read the information that is being provided. So, these efforts really aren’t producing transparency. What I have been really interested in is how we can create more informative and visual and compelling ways of showing when pollution is even happening,” Dr. Wylie explains.
Much of her work in an effort to achieve this goal focuses on helping communities understand what is going on around them and empowering them to ask questions and search for answers. She does this through a movement called citizen science. Citizen science is a way to engage community members in simple scientific investigations to answer questions about their own community.
“One of the advantages of citizen science is that you could have people who live along these infrastructures, along pipelines and by wells play a much bigger role in evaluating what these wells are doing by monitoring them and seeing how well they are working… The other part of this is that no matter how safe something appears under laboratory conditions, when it is released into the real world, it is interacting with a myriad of different chemicals, a huge array of different organisms and different environmental conditions. There is just no way to thoroughly test from the outset all of the potential problems with any technology, chemical or otherwise. I think citizen science can really be a part of building a much more responsive regulatory infrastructure, and a much more responsive research infrastructure that is really geared toward finding emerging environmental health problems,” Dr. Wylie says.
Currently, one of the main focuses of her work has been on unconventional energy extraction, also known as fracking. One of the side effects of the process of fracking is the release of a smelly, neurotoxic gas called Hydrogen Sulfide.
“I got interested in building a tool for communities to visualize where Hydrogen Sulfide is being emitted. Specifically, I’m developing a method of using photographic paper, which tarnishes with exposure to corrosive gasses like Hydrogen Sulfide. [The way it works, is that] you can put little samples of photo paper around your property or around a well or facility that you are concerned might be emitting corrosive gasses like Hydrogen Sulfide, and the photo paper gets darker with exposure,” Dr. Wylie explains.
This helps not only create lots of data points about where corrosive gas might be, but it also helps communities visualize where there might be hotspots of a lot of Hydrogen Sulfide gas being emitted.
Citizen science has also been used to generate maps of large oil spills near Louisiana, and test air quality in the town of Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. Often citizen science uses simple, inexpensive methods and can be used by anyone. Dr. Wylie has helped develop some of these projects in addition to co-founding an organization called Public Lab.
“Public Lab built a low cost spectrometer and one thing Public Lab members have used it for is to see if [laundry] detergents which are claiming to be free and clear of chemicals called brighteners are actually free of those chemicals. Brighteners are things that reflect UV light and make your clothes look shiny and bright and clean, so they glow under UV light basically. There is a really easy test to see whether or not a detergent has brighteners in it or not, and that is shining a UV light on it,” Dr. Wylie says.
She sees these simple, low-cost projects as a way everyone can get involved in environmental health and help keep large companies honest about their products and their production practices. In the future, she sees citizen science as a way to engage all types of people to make science more commonplace.
She envisions a future of “scientific infrastructure where science is a much more everyday part of people’s lives. Where developing research studies is something you would do in high school, and it would be sort of mundane to contribute to a national database of studies going on. Where you would really understand how science is done, how research tools are made, and be meaningfully contributing to general knowledge about our environments and what the consequences of human habitation are on our lived environments and our lived experiences, because that is what both endocrine disruption and climate change have [in common.] Really, the underlying message is that we have to develop systems to reflect on human impact on our environment and the ability of future generations to survive, and then be changing our practices based on recognizing those problems,” Dr. Wylie says.
Moving forward, the idea is that citizen science will help people voice their concerns about health topics, work with the scientific and academic communities to get data, and collaboratively find a solution to make the environment safer for everyone involved.
For those interested in learning more about citizen science, check out:
- Public Lab, publiclab.org
- Zooniverse, zooniverse.org
- EPA Air Sensor Tool Box, https://www.epa.gov/air-sensor-toolbox
- Citizen Science with the EPA, https://www.epa.gov/citizen-science/what-citizen-science
- Community Engaged Research and Citizen Science with NIEHS, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/translational/community/index.cfm
We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.
This month, we held our fourth webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.
* For those interested in community based environmental health monitoring and fracking, look for Dr. Wylie’s new book called Fractivism, set to be released February 8th by Duke University Press.