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Recognizing Women Leaders: Laura Vandenberg, PhD

Cross-posted from We All Live Downstream, the blog of Clean Water Action.

International Women’s Day seems more important than ever this year… to honor important women leaders in environmental health, we’re shining the spotlight today on one of our favorite sheroes, a trailblazing scientist whose research helps explore the complex relationships between toxic chemicals used in everyday products (like bisphenol-A or BPA, the toxic chemical commonly used in canned food linings) and human health damage.

Thank you, Dr. Vandenberg,  for your research that helps answer the tough questions about how to prevent harm to our health in a world where we’re constantly in contact with toxic chemicals!

And take action:  Today, in honor of Dr. Vandenberg’s leadership, please urge the largest supermarket chains in the United States to phase out their use of BPA in the linings of canned food they sell.

Read on to learn more about Dr. Vandenberg’s story as she’s interviewed by Cindy Luppi, Clean Water Action New England Director.


Dr. Laura Vandenberg
Dr. Laura Vandenberg

* What drew you to a career in science and your specific environmental health research? 

I was one of those odd little kids that liked to figure out how things work. I was in love with nature! I tried to make my own perfumes to gift to my mother – a colossal failure – I made bug terrariums, collected odd plants, and analyzed data from tiny solar cells I set up on a ladder in the front yard. My dad was a hunter, and I learned a lot about anatomy and physiology from dissecting the things we would later eat. And I was definitely the kid who asked for a microscope for Christmas!

In college, I developed a real passion for developmental biology, the study of how embryos develop from a single fertilized cell. I was fascinated by the processes that allow us to put every part of our body in the right place at the right time, at least most of the time. But I was also very interested in reproductive health, and I chose to get my PhD from Tufts Medical school because they had many faculty members focused on female reproduction. When I started working on BPA with Dr. Ana Soto, I realized that environmental health sciences was a way to integrate multiple fields of biology – developmental biology, cancer biology, molecular biology, reproductive biology, endocrinology – with really important public health problems, namely exposures to environmental chemicals.

* What do you see as your most important studies or proudest achievements?

Honestly, I think the most important studies are the ones we haven’t even thought of yet. I don’t mean to suggest some sense of false modesty. I’m a junior scientist, just getting started, and I’m proud of my work to date. But I cannot help but look at the problems that still affect everyday people, and realize that there is still so much to do.

* How does sexism affect your professional playing field?

I think a lot of people believe that sexism is a thing of the past. Right? Shouldn’t scientists be judged solely based on their contributions?!? Yet, I can still tell you my stories about job interviews where someone on the search committee mentioned to me that “women don’t make good science professors.” (Didn’t get that job!) Or the time that an administrator commented on my pregnant colleagues by saying that we were experiencing “a fertility problem” in our group. On the flip side, we have come so far!! My own mentors have shared such awful examples of sexism, that I feel so fortunate to be able to laugh off – after initial anger, of course – the few bad experiences I’ve had.

* Do you think we’re making progress in the search for a safer alternative to BPA as used in products, thermal receipts, food can linings?

I think alternatives are the easy part. *Safer* alternatives are quite difficult, especially when we are still trying to determine what makes a chemical safer. I would hope that sincere efforts to replace BPA would not involve substituting another bisphenol like BPS. Unfortunately, that is what we often see. But I have heard inklings of companies that are developing BPA alternatives for use in can linings and thermal receipt papers. I do hope that these will not only reach the market (soon), but that they also will be truly safer. This is a problem we can tackle.

* Did you have important women mentors and do you enjoy being a mentor for others?

Yes, I have had several strong women who have mentored me through my career, including my undergraduate research advisor, Dr. Mariana Wolfner; my graduate advisor, Dr. Ana Soto; my graduate thesis chair, Dr. Beverly Rubin; and my postdoctoral teaching mentor, Dr. Kelly McLaughlin. But I have also had amazing advising from male scientists, who mentored me not just in science but also understood that a scientific career is different for women. These include my graduate co-advisor, Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein; my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Mike Levin; and my mentor at UMass, Dr. Tom Zoeller.

I absolutely LOVE being a mentor. At UMass, I have the great pleasure to mentor awesome young men and women, undergraduates and graduate students. Working with them is honestly the best part of my job. They have such passion for science! Watching them in the process of scientific discovery and seeing their excitement at being the first person in the world to know something – like, what effect does Chemical X have on health outcome Y – is so amazing.

* What keeps you motivated personally and do your students realize how lucky they are to work with you?

Adorable question!

I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time with my friends’ children – and they motivate me. I saw a sign that said, “We don’t inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our grandchildren.” This kind of philosophy keeps me going. I truly believe that we’re changing the world and improving the health of vulnerable people! Who could think of a better use of their life?!?

My students are awesome! Yes, they know how lucky they are to get to do hands-on research. And I am so grateful to serve the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and teach the next generation!!

* Two of the words that I think of to describe you:  brilliant and brave, in the face of difficult political/industry dynamics. Have you paid a price for exercising your independent scientific voice?  Do you have any advice for women aspiring to enter the field?

I’d like to think the main price I’ve paid is in gray hair!! Sometimes doing the right thing is hard, and it has occasionally given me heartache. The best solution to the political dynamics in the field of environmental health is to stick to the science. One way that the chemical industry has tried to attack scientists like me is to label us ‘activists’, as if speaking about science is unscientific. How odd, considering that these same people are literally advocating for a product or chemical! But again, the best solution is to let the science be the voice. The thing I truly ‘advocate’ for is good science – and the use of good science by decision makers to protect public health!

My advice to young women is to get strong training in a basic scientific field, so they can apply this training to address the important public health issues we will encounter in the future. Stick to science, and let it guide you! There is so much work to do, but many hands make lighter work.


For more information on Dr. Vandenberg and her research: