Scientist on the Scene: A Profile of Dr. Celia Chen

Celia Chenby Amanda Giang

We’re certainly not the only science-folk at INC5. Over the course of the week, we’ve had the opportunity to meet many others who are here to support the negotiation in one way or another. Between sessions, I had the chance to catch up with one of them, Dr. Celia Chen, to find out a little more about why she’s here at the negotiations and what advice she has for us aspiring science-policy wonks.

Celia works in the Department of Biology at Dartmouth College, as part of the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. The program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), looks at how mercury and arsenic in the environment affect ecosystem and human health. Within the program, she spends her time “wearing two different hats,” she says, one as a traditional eco-toxicologist and principal investigator for a project on the fate of metals in aquatic food webs, and a second as the principal investigator of research translation. “Translation is part of the mandate NIEHS gives for Superfund research,” Celia explains. Not only are researchers within these programs expected to clarify the science of contamination, but they’re also expected to make sure that their findings are communicated—or translated—to stakeholders (i.e., the people who can use or are directly affected by the findings), be they regulators from the EPA and FDA, or local food cooperatives.

She sees this research translation as a crucial role that scientists must play in policy-making forums. “We need to take what we know about the science and put it in a language that is accessible to policy makers,” she argues. Too often, critical scientific knowledge remains locked up in scientific publications, which, while they are the bread-and-butter of professional research, don’t always penetrate into policy circles. Celia feels that it is the responsibility of scientists to put their work in a form that resonates with—and is useful to—those in decision-making positions, from consumers making choices about their personal fish consumption, to negotiators working at an international scale. In fact, that’s why she’s attending the mercury negotiations. In 2010, the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program created the Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC) to synthesize current knowledge on the environmental health impacts of mercury in a policy relevant way. Celia is attending INC5 to share the results of this project: the Sources to Seafood report.

“We tried to ask stakeholders first what they needed to know,” describes Celia. “The timing of [the Sources to Seafood report] was on purpose.”

Sources to Seafood was published on the tail of a domestic regulation in the US for mercury from coal-fired power plants, and directly before the final negotiating session for a global treaty on mercury. A key question that policy makers for both domestic and international regulation want clarified is how controlling different sources of mercury emissions and releases will actually affect human exposure. This question is important for both designing new policy and evaluating existing ones.

“When we began this work, most of the research done on mercury in the environment was done in freshwater systems, not marine. But most people are exposed to methylmercury through marine seafood,” Chen says. The report estimates that, for most of the US population, 85% of methylmercury exposure comes from marine fish. What are the sources of mercury that affect different marine and estuarine—that is, ocean and coastal—systems, from which fish are harvested? How do these sources affect human exposure? Researchers in biogeochemistry, food web dynamics, and health were all trying to answer different parts of these questions, but these different threads weren’t being woven together into a comprehensive picture.

“The most novel part of [the Sources to Seafood report],” Celia argues, is its interdisciplinary and cross-scale approach. “There are still many gaps and not enough data,” she says, but by synthesizing many different studies from different fields, a few conclusions can be drawn.

The most important point from the Sources to Seafood report that needs to be conveyed to decision-makers, Celia highlights, is that for each ocean system, critical sources of mercury may be different—some systems are most affected by atmospheric deposition, while others are most affected by inputs from rivers. Will the draft text on emissions and releases reflect these nuances? Celia hopes that reports like Sources to Seafood might help ensure that it does.

As for students interested in marine science-policy, Celia recommends that they consider the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowships, which match students with “host” policy makers in the executive and legislative branches of the US government in Washington D.C. These fellowships are open to any student, regardless of citizenship, enrolled in a graduate program at a US university that has a Sea Grant program.

For those interested in how the final treaty shapes up, keep following developments here on our blog and via twitter @amandagiang and @MITmercury.

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