'Genius grant' winner lives in 3 worlds Home, academia, advocacy fill life

July 11, 1993|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Staff Writer

Dr. Ellen K. Silbergeld is at home in several worlds.

One is filled with test tubes and toxicology classes, another with public policy debates and environmental committees.

A third is filled with homework, soccer, gymnastics, hectic mornings and no-show baby-sitters.

Last month, Dr. Silbergeld, 47, of Baltimore received a $290,000 "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Dr. Silbergeld divides her weekdays between teaching classes or doing research as a professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and working to change public policy in Washington as chief toxics scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

In doing so, she has become known as a scientist who has both the ability and desire to halt lab work long enough to argue policy.

On a recent Saturday morning, however, as Dr. Silbergeld swings on a hammock with her 8-year-old son, Nicholas, and husband, Mark, the word "genius" does not spring to mind. (Nor does it upon hearing her voice imitating Godzilla on the telephone answering machine.)

The Silbergelds minus one -- 12-year-old Sophia is at summercamp -- are eating breakfast on the wrap-around veranda of their Roland Park home. In the interlude before father and son rush off to a soccer game, there is a rare moment of familial serenity.

Rare indeed. In the three weeks after learning of the grant -- she's unsure how she will spend the money, but wants to use it "to make a difference" -- Dr. Silbergeld flew to Munich to speak at an international toxicology conference, polished three manuscripts for publication, and finished a third round of experiments that attempt to link blood lead levels in male rats to fetal defects in their offspring.

Meanwhile, Sophia left for camp in North Carolina and Mr. Silbergeld, director of the Consumers Union's Washington office, flew to Costa Rica to speak on free-market economies.

Work vs. home

The Silbergeld formula for the inevitable work-vs.-home crunch consists of "two opposing principles," Dr. Silbergeld says.

"One is: I let my kids really know what I'm doing. They come to the lab. They both have traveled with me. They understand why I have to be out of town sometimes," she says.

"The other is: When I'm at home, I'm at home. When we go on vacation, I leave work behind."

The decision to have children didn't come easily. "When I was working at NIH, children were a huge issue. [Women at the National Institutes of Health] were all fairly much convinced it was impossible to have children and a science career," she says.

But in her mid-30s, after 10 years of marriage, Dr. Silbergeld realized she wanted to try.

"I wasn't under any illusions that it would be easy, but I asked myself: 'Did I not want children because I didn't want children or because it was so hard?' "

And she adds, laughing: "I have never not done something because people made it hard for me."

Called "pleasantly aggressive" by one public health official, Dr. Silbergeld refers to herself as downright stubborn. "It leads one into a lot of trouble," she says.

Persistence pays

Persistance, however, often pays when arguing for policy changes.

"Just get in an argument with her. You'll see!" says Dr. Joel Schwartz, a senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, who has done lead research with Dr. Silbergeld and who received a 1991 MacArthur grant. "Her combination of persistence and scientific knowledge is very effective."

Her determination paid off after a young Ellen Kovner, a woman with a bachelor of arts degree in history from Vassar College, decided to join a predominantly male graduate program at the John Hopkins University.

"Her whole outlook is directed.

She is stimulated by the outside world as well as from within," says M. Gordon "Reds" Wolman, a professor in the Hopkins Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, where Dr. Silbergeld received her doctorate.

Solving problems

It was, in fact, Dr. Wolman's father, the late Dr. Abel Wolman, head of the first department of sanitary engineering at Hopkins, who inspired her commitment to changing policy, Dr. Silbergeld says.

"He gave me the notion that scientific research was important only in so far as it helps us solve problems, not just define problems," she says.

And so on a recent afternoon in her University of Maryland lab, as Dr. Silbergeld used a pipette to place brain cells from young rats into test tubes, her conversation ranged from the experiment to policy changes she'd like to see made.

The work at hand is the third round of tests attempting to prove a hypothesis, developed by Dr. Silbergeld and a former graduate student, that lead poisoning in adult males affects their offspring.

Many scientists have focused concerns about lead poisoning on pregnant adult females, studying how the mother's condition might harm the fetus while overlooking the potential role of lead poisoning in the father.

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