School of Public Health and Community Medicine - University of Washington - Spr/Sum 2007
1. Environmental Health-Protecting Vulnerable Populations
2. Student Research Day
3. Conference Presentations
4. IH Degree Undergoes Change
5. Summer Students
6. 2007 Commencement
7. Continuing Education
8. People & Places
9. Annual Ceremonies
10. Alternatives to Animal Experiments
11. The Fine Print

Tracking Pollutants | Science and Policy | Environmental Law | For Further Reading


Our department has five graduate programs in the occupational and environmental health sciences. This issue of Environmental Health News focuses on our Environmental Health master's degree program, which combines community-based participatory research, fieldwork, and bench science. Three stories about our graduate students explain how Environmental Health research can improve public health. The remainder of this issue summarizes the highlights of our 2006–2007 school year, including degrees, awards, and presentations at spring conferences.

Tracking Pollutants

Clarita Lefthand
Clarita Lefthand

An eagle crosses the overcast sky as University of Washington students wade in the muck of a low tide, carefully filling and cataloguing sample jars. The setting is spectacular, the task less so. They are trying to determine the sources of fecal contamination in Tulalip Bay, which has forced the Tulalip Tribes to post "no swimming" signs and close a subsistence fishery and productive shellfish beds.

Clarita Lefthand, the quiet woman at the center of the activity, combines science with a passion for her people. Although she belongs to the Navajo Nation 1400 miles to the south, she feels a strong connection with the Tulalip Tribes.

No Swimming Sign
Photo by Clarita Lefthand.

Using the tools of environmental microbiology, she can help the tribes' Natural Resource Department track the source of the fecal bacteria that have closed the bay. Specifically, she can determine whether the source is human, perhaps a wastewater treatment plant or failing septic system, or animal, either domestic or wild. This knowledge is key to controlling the pollution at its source. Lefthand is using two microbial source tracking techniques—bacteroides 16S ribosomal RNA gene and F+ RNA coliphage markers—to differentiate the sources of fecal contamination.

As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Lefthand majored in general biology and minored in chemistry. Once she had a taste of research, she wanted more, and decided to go to graduate school out of "pure curiosity" about sciences and their application. She chose our department to study with Assistant Professor John Scott Meschke, who has pioneered coliphage marker techniques. She will defend her master's thesis this summer and will enter our PhD program this fall, continuing to study with Meschke. In April she helped organize the sixth annual Symposium of Native Scholarship sponsored by the UW chapter for the Native American Students in Advanced Academia.

Her career goals encompass both basic and applied sciences. She wants to teach biology, conduct pathogenesis research, promote science education among Natives, and address environmental issues that affect tribes.

Science and Policy

Yolanda Sanchez
Yolanda Sanchez

Yolanda Sanchez came to the Environmental Health program through a different door—environmental justice. As an undergraduate at Arizona State University, she became concerned about the siting of toxic facilities in communities of color. "Once I got into it, I discovered a field that looked at that issue—Environmental Health." As an undergraduate she majored in life sciences and minored in ethnic studies, but also was exposed to ecology and toxicology.

She came to the UW to learn more about risk assessment, the fate and transport of chemicals, and community based participatory research (CBPR). In her three years in the Environmental Health program, she has helped raise the department's awareness of environmental justice. One summer, she developed our department's environmental justice website.

Sanchez has worked as a research assistant for El Proyecto Bienestar, a CBPR project with Associate Professor Matthew Keifer in the Yakima Valley, and on a policy project with Clinical Professor Michael Silverstein assessing federal workplace health protection.

For her thesis, she investigated the seasonality of asthma attacks in the Yakima Valley and whether or not there is an association with agricultural processes. Her findings support previous epidemiologic studies that found that farmers—unlike the general population—develop asthma as they get older.

Sanchez is in the second wave of graduates from our concurrent degree program with the UW Evans School of Public Affairs, graduating with both Master of Science and Master of Public Administration degrees. She says both of her degree programs encourage graduates to move between the public and private sectors.

This summer she is interning in the regulatory affairs department of Cisco Systems, an Internet networking company. This fall she begins a one-year fellowship through the Associated Schools of Public Health, working at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Center for Environmental Research in Washington, DC. Sanchez received the School of Public Health and Community Medicine's 2006 Martin Luther King Award. The award cited her passion for environmental justice and her commitment to increasing the number of students from under-represented backgrounds in the field of environmental health.

She recently appeared in University Week for her role in organizing the UW's chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). The chapter's goal is to provide additional support for under-represented graduate students in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. "It is important for graduate students to connect with other graduate students who have similar experiences," she said. She hopes UW SACNAS will evolve into a community of scientists of color and provide academic and social support.

Environmental Law

Melissa Winters
Melissa Winters

Melissa Winters became interested in Environmental Health as a law student at Seattle University, where she studied with Catherine O'Neill, an expert in environmental justice and environmental law.

With O'Neill, she worked on a research project reviewing the impacts of the EPA's proposed rule for regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Her analysis made her realize that the harms of the proposed rule will be visited disproportionately on Native Americans, especially tribes catching and eating fish from hot spots such as the Great Lakes. She was concerned that the rule did not address these differing circumstances of exposure and was motivated to continue to investigate the intersections of law and public health.

After law school, her interest in environmental law made Winters wish she had a greater understanding of the scientific and technical issues. She enrolled in our EH program, where she just finished her first year.

This summer she began a one-year fellowship under the EPA's National Network for Environmental Management Studies. At the EPA's Region 10 office in Seattle, she is participating in the National Partnership for Environmental Priorities Project, where she works with industry representatives to develop best management practices for several industrial sectors, including petroleum refineries and pulp and paper mills. In a second project, she will develop best practices for waste management at federal facilities.

At the UW, she is working with professors Rich Fenske and Mike Yost on pesticide aerial spray drift. She will continue to take classes, such as risk assessment and epidemiology in the fall. "Environmental Health is such a broad field," she said. "It has such a diversity of offerings."

For Further Reading

Tulalip Tribe's Natural Resource Department

Science society's new chapter gaining momentum at the UW, University Week, May 24, 2007

DEOHS Environmental Justice website

O'Neill C. Environmental justice and water quality: Protecting tribes' rights to catch and consume fish, March 8, 2007, Podcast, Lewis & Clark Law School