SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
18 May 2017
Volume 18 Issue 5
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Well, How Did I Get Here?

Tom Augspurger, President, SETAC North America

This month, members of SETAC North America’s initiative on welcoming new members are sharing their stories of what got them so deeply involved in our science, networking and service. It’s been fun and informative to hear what drew people to SETAC across varying decades, geographies, employment situations and life experiences. There are recurring themes of excellence in applied environmental science, welcoming invitations and friendships, but a common denominator is the energy and opportunity of the annual meeting. For everyone, there are special aspects of that time together; here are three that most resonate with me:

Conversation

Amazing things happen when we meet face-to-face, from one-on-one to small groups and beyond. The words we put in an email or SETAC Globe article are enriched by the understanding that a conversation affords – the eye contact of attentive listening, the nod of comprehension, the smile of acceptance, the raised eyebrows of “you might want to think about it again,” a glance over the eyeglasses to say “you got this, and we’re counting on you,” a handshake or literal pat on the back for a job well-done. Life-changing things happen in conversations. Here’s my story:   

My first job after undergraduate school was as a technician for a small analytical chemistry firm, making money while I decided on whether to pursue environmental law, environmental science or my high school sweetheart. The lab was essentially a startup, with only three chemists, two gas chromatographs, a mass spec and the drive to promise 24-hour analytical turnaround. Deda, an environmental consultant, would arrive midday when we’d exchange results of samples delivered the day before for a new batch of samples. I now had samples to log (and glassware to clean), and she had PCB data to optimize an incinerator and soil remediation project, but we’d talk for a bit. She patiently fielded naive questions (“Is that amount of total PCBs a lot?” “How much is bad?” and “Who decides that?”), and connected the lab’s work to a bigger picture of environmental stewardship and jobs in environmental toxicology and risk assessment. In that entry-level job in rural Florida, I was fortunate that Deda and I had a chance to talk in a way that influenced my next steps. At SETAC meetings, there are thousands of those conversations in which to listen, share, get direction, forge new friendships and strengthen existing professional relationships.

Understanding Different Perspectives

At the closing ceremony of our meeting in Orlando, I noted with pride SETAC’s model of inclusion and civil discourse – attributes possibly more important now than ever. We avoid the echo chamber of parochial or self-congratulatory gatherings by testing assumptions, refining best practices for dealing with old problems and tackling new ones. We’ve had our annual meeting since SETAC’s founding. Why was getting together among the first tasks of the initial Board of Directors? The first presidential address1 sheds some light on it. Eugene Kenaga noted that the environmental risk assessment work ahead called for inclusion of “interested scientists from all walks of scientific life; from academia, industry and government,” and that we would need the talents of “chemists, toxicologists, biologists, engineers, meteorologists, ecologists, geologists, hydrologists, etc., all speaking and working together in a peer review system.” Learning from our diverse members and guests carries on a 38-year history of understanding and cooperative problem solving. Our founders launched a “society” – being in the company of other people – instead of a mere organization or association, and we continue to benefit from it.

Heightened Technical Proficiency, at a Value

In my annual justification to attend our meeting, I note the return on investment in terms of vetting our science and learning from others. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience in the depth and breadth of environmental toxicology, chemistry and risk assessment science with more than 2,000 platform and poster presentations while only being away from the office for four days. Training and travel budgets were among the casualties of the 2007 financial crisis; during those lean times, the SETAC annual meeting was my choice for best value in terms of science outreach, continuing education, enhanced partnerships, cooperative projects initiated, papers brought to fruition and esprit de corps – I find it so today more than ever.

So, like many others who’ve been sharing their stories of how they found a home in SETAC, the annual meeting is a key for me (along with being welcomed by colleagues and encouraged to get involved in the networking of committee work and governance). As you read this, there are a host of member volunteers and dedicated staff working to make our SETAC North America 38th Annual Meeting, which will be held from 12–16 November in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the premier environmental science event of the year. More volunteers and staff await your abstracts (giving a talk or poster is one important way to stand up for science!).  I hope to see you in the Twin Cities and to listen – when we pass in the hall or over a meal – to what it is about SETAC that resonates for you as we chart the path forward together of welcoming and engaging new members.

Author’s contact information: tom_augspurger@fws.gov

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