July 2002
The Knowledge Gap In Women's Health

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Assessing Environmental Health Risks

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© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Assessing Environmental Health Risks
By Karen Young Kreeger

The career track of Barbara Beck ’68, a principal at the Gradient Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., has been marked by a series of transitions. She has moved from one discipline to another, and she has held positions within academia and both the public and private sectors. As a biology major at Bryn Mawr, Beck says, she became familiar with a broad range of areas in the biological sciences and received extensive training in the lab. These experiences, along with a solid foundation in basic liberal arts, prepared her for the transitions in her professional life.

Barbara Beck ’68

"I think that helped me because over time I’ve felt comfortable transitioning from basic biochemistry research to animal toxicology research, and now I’m not in the lab at all," Beck explains. "I’m involved in the interpretation of scientific data, but I feel comfortable working in a number of arenas in the biological and health sciences, which I attribute to the fact that my biology education at Bryn Mawr was a broadening experience."

After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Beck didn’t expect to go on for a Ph.D. right away. "I think that in all honesty we fall into a lot of things in life," she explains. Beck worked in a research lab at Tufts University in the medical school’s molecular biology department, a position she obtained with the help of L. Joseph Berry, chair of the Bryn Mawr biology department at the time. "Dr. Berry was also helpful in terms of opportunities to do research during the summer and school year," Beck says.

Following a year at Tufts, Beck entered a Ph.D. program in the molecular biology department there, graduating in 1975. She conducted basic biochemistry studies, looking at changes in enzyme activity during the cell-division cycle of bacteria. Beck went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Harvard University, working on basic molecular biology questions about messenger RNA synthesis.

Transition to Toxicology

How did Beck find her way from molecular biology to toxicology, one of her early career transitions? "I realized I really liked working with more applied projects where I can see the results of the work in my lifetime," she explains. Beck also notes that the job market at that time was less than inviting: "This was before the explosion in sequencing and molecular biology and biotech." When she finished her last postdoc seven months into pregnancy with no immediate funding in sight and a husband in graduate school, Beck says, "I thought I should be thinking about being more practical."

With that in mind she took a one-year position as an instructor at Tufts. "During that time I realized I wanted to be more involved in public health," she recalls. At the same time Harvard was in the process of creating an interdisciplinary program in public health, bringing together people from different fields to spend part of their time on their own research and part on group projects. It was as a Fellow in the Interdisciplinary Programs in Health at the Harvard University School of Public Health that Beck started her work in toxicology. She is still a lecturer in toxicology at Harvard.

Public and Private Sectors

After her fellowship at Harvard, Beck became chief of air toxics at the Region 1 headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1985 to 1987. Why this move from academia to a government agency? "I really enjoyed Harvard and the people there, but in academia you spend a lot of time writing grants. I found it frustrating to spend so much time on a project that, at that time, had less than a 50 percent chance of success. The success rate on grants is now even lower."

Beck did receive an offer of an assistant professorship at Harvard, which she turned down. "People there still mention to me that I was one of the few people to ever do that," she says.

Beck accepted a position at Gradient, an environmental consulting agency, and has been there since the late 1980s. At the EPA, she gained an appreciation of the difficulty of being a regulator, "but it was also somewhat frustrating working at a regional level where you have to take guidance from headquarters rather than develop your own programs," she says of her decision to move into the private sector.

Branching Out

As Gradient’s point person for toxicology and health-risk assessment, she now has the opportunity to branch out. The company deals with assessing the risk of environmental chemicals. Gradient’s clients include private corporations, law firms and municipalities. Beck’s work there has included risk assessments of hazardous waste sites and interpreting animal studies with respect to human exposures. She is presently involved in a large-scale analysis of potential risks for pressure-treated wood. She recently gave a presentation to Congress on the risks of low-level arsenic exposure in drinking water, describing recommendations from a National Academy of Science report on arsenic risk.

In 1996 Gradient was acquired by a large engineering firm, which Beck describes as "not a happy marriage." In 1999, Beck’s and another partner’s employment agreements were about to expire. They talked to the CEO of the engineering firm, tendered their resignations and offered to buy Gradient back. "The negotiation process almost gave me an ulcer," recalls Beck. "It was nerve-wracking and expensive, but clearly the right decision."

Beck is now in the midst of yet another new stage in her career — business partner. As one of the three major owners in Gradient, her responsibilities go beyond the conduct and oversight of the technical work. An important part of her responsibilities include client interaction and business development. "As a niche, high-end consulting firm, much of our work comes in as sole source and via referrals," she explains. "What this really means, in terms of business development, is that I need to be able to identify a solution to a technical problem in that initial interview, often on the basis of limited and confusing information."

As an owner, Beck finds herself watching the bottom line, tracking trends in revenues and profits, and participating in major corporate decisions, such as expanding into new business areas: "There’s always a new challenge to address." She notes that she works more now than when she was a graduate student, but that it’s different when you actually are an owner of the business.

About the Author

Karen Young Kreeger is a science journalist who writes on biomedical and women’s health topics, as well as careers in science. Her most recent work has appeared in Bioscience, Genome Technology, Muse and The Scientist.

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