Meet the Scientist: Lora Siegmann WernerPosted on by
Lora sees herself carrying on an open door tradition started by the founder of the ATSDR Region 3 office, Charles “Bucky” Walters. Back in the early days when ATSDR was first developing approaches to evaluating chemical exposures in communities, “anyone in EPA could come in and we would do our best to help them.” Lora is now the 2nd person to direct the Region 3 office.
Path to Public Health
Lora was born in Baltimore, MD, while her father was doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins. At the time, ultrasounds weren’t common, so her parents were very surprised when Lora’s mother gave birth to twins. Lora has a total of six siblings, with 15 nieces and nephews (and counting!) among them.
The family relocated to upstate New York after her father accepted a teaching position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the same institute from which Lora would later graduate with a degree in Science and Technology Studies.
Interested in science, especially environmental science, Lora enjoyed field work and working directly with researchers. After graduation, she obtained a job in environmental consulting, moving to Virginia and subsequently worked with the Georgia Division of Public Health on local health department emergency preparedness. Then, “wow, it all clicked – this is where I belong, this is public health, this is what I want to do!” So she enrolled in Johns Hopkins and earned a master’s degree in public health.
Lora eventually relocated to Philadelphia with her husband, where she worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency before joining ATSDR in 1999. She has been passionate about public health ever since.
ATSDR’s Regional Offices
ATSDR regional reps work closely with EPA, state and local agencies, non-profits, and academics to build partnerships to help translate information about environmental exposures. “The common thread among the different regional offices is to help communities understand exposure risks and how those risks may affect their health,” says Lora.
An exposure investigation involving a coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, Virginia stands out in Lora’s memory of significant projects from her time at ATSDR. The Mirant Potomac River Generating Plant was an electricity-generating facility located on the Potomac River that operated from 1949-2012. Lora recalls working with an amazing team of ATSDR colleagues and the local health department director, with whom she developed a close working relationship. She shared that health department directors are in a tough place on the front lines. Lora enjoys collaborating with local health departments when she is invited to provide her unique expertise, and special technical and field experience.
The ATSDR site team designed an effort to collect air sampling information in the community to look at the health concerns there in relation to emissions from the power plant. High-rise apartment buildings had been built close to power plant stacks that were emitting pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, into the air. “Community members had concerns that they’d shared with their local officials. ATSDR worked closely with them to gather real data and share that data with the community.
An emerging critical area of work for ATSDRs Region 3 now is unconventional natural gas operations. “We are challenged to find answers for residents and health professionals who are raising concerns about environmental exposures and the potential for health effects from these operations throughout this region,” says Lora.
An Eye to the Future
Lora and her colleagues strive to better understand what exposures mean for people’s health. With that comes a better understanding of what can concern the public most: cancers, and what relationships past chemical exposures may have with different cancers. “People refer to ‘cancer’ like it is a single disease. In reality, every cancer is a unique condition with its own risk factors, some of which can vary person to person when genetic and environmental factors come into play. We really don’t know what causes the majority of people’s cancers. There are cancers definitively linked to chemical exposures, such as asbestos and mesothelioma. But for so many different cancers like Polycythemia Vera [the occurrence of which Lora is helping investigate in Northeast Pennsylvania], we just don’t fully understand the chemical exposure piece of the equation. ” Lora envisions a future in which these questions can be answered more fully and more definitive links uncovered.
“CDCs National Center for Environmental Health’s Environmental Public Tracking Program is doing exciting ground work” that Lora hopes will better enable scientists to answer these questions and provide guidance for future environmental public health interventions.
Passionate About the Environment
When not immersed in environmental public health work, Lora’s passion for the environment runs over (literally) to her personal life, where she and her husband and their 2 children, aged 11 and 13, enjoy touring National Parks in the United States. And Lora breaks from work when she can to run along Philadelphia’s scenic river trails at lunch with some of her colleagues, enjoying healthy outdoor time.
Lora’s exuberance and passion are evident in her commitment to her family, her work, and her relationships with colleagues at EPA and in local and state health departments, as she continues the open door tradition. She is grateful for and appreciative of the amazing staff in Region 3 and all their partners working in the field every day on challenging public health questions about environmental exposures.
If a specific health question or issue arises about a potential environmental hazard, ATSDR conducts a public health consultation. A consultation differs from a public health assessment in that the consultation focuses on a specific question and provides a more rapid response. A consultation can address public health issues such as a chemical or radiological contamination, epidemiology, or provide technical advice on sampling and remediation plans. Public health consultations are not medical examinations, community health studies, or public health assessments.