Science Begets CuriosityPosted on by
Susan Ingber came to CDC not exactly knowing where she fit in. She started out premed, worked in a lab before becoming a science writer, and then went on to study public policy in graduate school. But even with a degree in biology, she felt she had drifted away from science.
Now, with an interest in showing how research can be used, Susan has shifted focus from conducting research to promoting it. “CDC/ATSDR is a great environment for that,” she says.
Immersed in the realm of translating science, Susan has now found her niche.
The Road to Public Health
Susan was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her passion for science and health began in early childhood. She fondly remembers receiving an anatomy book from her parents when she was six and reading about bone formation. When Susan was young, her mother, who worked in the health insurance industry, introduced her to the concept of risk in the context of making health decisions. Her parents also instilled strong social values that included helping people. “In anything I do, I want to give back,” she says.
Susan’s family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, when she was nine years old, following her mother’s job transfer. However, her biggest move came in 2003 when she left the U.S. for McGill University in Quebec, Canada. She spent two years there as an anatomy student, ultimately transferring to and graduating from Smith College with lab experience and a degree in biology.
She moved to Boston to get a lab position but decided the lab wasn’t a good fit for her. So she was off again, this time to New York, where she worked as a science writer for a small non-profit organization.
For one of her first writing projects, she sat in on an EPA phone conference and wrote about the findings in their draft toxicity report on formaldehyde. She learned about ATSDR’s work and exposure science. Most of the writing that she did involved exposures to environmental chemicals and addressing public concerns about their safety.
But she decided that writing wasn’t quite what she wanted to do either. So she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, enrolling in Georgia Tech to pursue a master’s degree in Science and Technology Policy. She was still interested in science but wanted to figure out how to ensure that sound science informs public health policy decisions.
Susan completed an ORISE fellowship with ATSDR, in the Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences (DTHHS). She wrote her masters professional paper on DDT and breast cancer, based on her fellowship, to add a public health element to her graduate education. She just recently converted to an Associate Service Fellow in the fall of 2015.
She is very proud of her published paper whose content was also included in the DDT Toxicological Profile (ToxProfile) addendum. It reflects the state of the science that ATSDR is working on now. “We are starting to use a research method called systematic review to write ToxProfiles, to make the information more clear and useful. This work will make it much easier for ATSDR to communicate to different audiences, from the general public to the field worker, giving them what they need to know to reduce people’s exposures to potentially harmful chemicals,” she says.
Usable Science for Public Health Impact
ATSDR’s ToxProfiles enable anyone to access important information about toxic substances and their potential effects on human health and the environment. For example, policy makers use ToxProfiles to support policies that can prevent exposure to toxic substances in the public. Others use them to determine how safe a chemical is that the public has already been exposed to. In her work in DTHHS, Susan helps investigate how public health professionals use ToxProfiles. Her work includes creating digital “libraries” of research and state policy documents that use ToxProfile research.
One of her goals is to come up with ways ATSDR can make the ToxProfiles more useful to policy makers—who are better positioned to pass laws that protect human health. Thus far, she has found that ATSDR’s 30+ years of research helped update state exposure reduction policies and provided direction to several chemical monitoring programs across the country.
“It’s exciting seeing the science translated into exposure reduction policies or other public health decisions that can ultimately help people live better lives,” she says. “My hope is that some of these policies can have results that make communities feel safer.”
Hobbies and Outside Interests
In her off time, Susan indulges her love of the viola as a member of a local art rock band. They currently play in a basement studio and hope to play venues soon.
While her garden is currently weathering the winter with crop cover, she fully intends to plant a bounty of vegetables, fruits, and flowers during spring and summer. When the days are warm, Susan can be found riding her bike around her hilly subdivision; when it’s cold, she can be found reading a book with her partner (who also works at CDC, as an Evaluation Fellow) and four kitties.
Her lab experience is paying off—she brews beer in her kitchen and has so far produced several popular flavors, including a spicy jalapeno lime saison, oatmeal raisin cookie stout, and blueberry wheat.
Whenever she can, Susan also visits her identical twin sister, a school psychologist, entertaining innocent bystanders with their “twin-y” moments.
“Science begets curiosity and it feeds it, too,” Susan says. Science is her outlet to ask and answer questions. “At CDC, people are always asking why. I’m also asking how.”
- Public Health Statements (PHS): The PHS are a series of summaries about hazardous substances taken from Chapter One of their respective ATSDR Toxicological Profiles.
- ATSDR ToxFAQsTM: The ToxFAQsTM are a series of 2-page fact sheets about hazardous substances
- ATSDR ToxGuidesTM: The ATSDR ToxGuidesTM are quick reference guides providing information such as chemical and physical properties, sources of exposure, routes of exposure, minimal risk levels, children’s health, and health effects.
By Congressional mandate, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) produces “toxicological profiles” for hazardous substances found at National Priorities List (NPL) sites. These hazardous substances are ranked based on frequency of occurrence at NPL sites, toxicity, and potential for human exposure. Toxicological profiles are developed from a priority list of 275 substances. ATSDR also prepares toxicological profiles for the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) on substances related to federal sites.
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