Reflecting on 50 Years of EPA Research: Dr. Jerry Blancato
Published August 18, 2020
EPA's Dr. Jerry Blancato is the Director of the Office of Science Information Management in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. In honor of EPA’s 50th anniversary, Jerry is reflecting on his career at EPA which began in 1985.
What brought you to EPA?
As far back as high school I thought about a career in science, especially health sciences, and maybe working at the Food and Drug Administration. When I was in high school, EPA didn’t exist yet. While I was in college the environmental movement picked up steam and EPA came to be. In graduate school, both my master’s and PhD work involved the effects of toxic chemicals on the body. My PhD advisor was very familiar with EPA and suggested I contact a friend of his, Dr. James Falco. Dr. Falco and I hit it off and when jobs opened up, I applied and ended up working for him.
What have been some of the most transformative scientific advancements that you have observed during your time here?
First, the expansion of computational sciences and modeling for studying chemicals in the environment and in organisms, including humans. When I first came to EPA, I was one of only two physiologic pharmacokinetic modelers. With my colleagues, we introduced the use of this computational technique to improve and advance risk assessment. Today at EPA, modeling is used across all our research. Second, I would say the creative and extensive use of geospatial information and other visualization. The ability to study the environment in real time and then use those results with advanced technologies to ask “what if” questions has been a huge advancement. Third, the use of data and rapid throughput screening has been a major advancement. Relevant information for toxicity screening and modes of action can be gleaned in hours rather than weeks or months. And the sheer number of analyses that can be run in a short time is amazing.
What are some things you’re most proud of throughout your career?
I’m proud of my work helping advance the quantitative impact and of physiological mechanisms to understand and predict toxicity. I had the privilege to work with Dr. Robert Kavlock to start and promote computational toxicology at EPA. Computational toxicology has been a seminal contribution by EPA researchers. It was a pleasure working with those pioneers at EPA and to now watch the next generation move this exciting science forward.
I’ve also worked with administrative and technology professionals who keep the “trains moving”. Without their expertise and dedication, we would be in a canoe without a paddle. Some of the most rewarding times in my career have been my time working with these folks.
I also cherish the friendship and respect of my colleagues. They have been so charitable and important to me. Every place I have worked in EPA has been an incredible and enjoyable experience. Finally, I genuinely appreciate the often “out of the blue” comments I get when family, friends, and even perfect strangers thank me and the rest of EPA for the work we do and the difference we make.
What are some of the biggest environmental problems EPA is currently tackling?
The impact of even low levels of air pollution on the environment and public health cannot be ignored. Just because the levels are low does not mean that there is no impact on cardiovascular and respiratory function. I think COVID is showing us the interaction between communicable disease and environmental health. Evidence is strong that pollutant stress can create vulnerabilities. And that takes me to another major challenge, environmental justice. For too long, communities of color and those on the lower end of the economic scale have been disproportionately impacted by environmental burdens. As a nation, we must find ways to address this situation as quickly as possible. The environment must be the best possible for all members of our society. If it is not, we are failing the whole country.
What are some of the country’s greatest environmental accomplishments over the past 50 years?
I think in 1970 the American natural environment was truly dirty. The San Bernardino valley for example, had terrible smog every day. That has improved significantly. This is true for a host of environmental conditions. But as important, is the role that EPA has had in making the public aware of these conditions – from school children to urban decision makers. Considering the condition of our natural environment is now a primary concern in our decision making. Sure, we have a long way to go, but we have come very far as a nation.
Who have you most looked up to throughout your career?
Trite as it might sound, the first would be my father. From him I learned that any work is worth doing and is worth doing well. No honest work is beneath or above any of us. He also taught me that at the end of the day we will be measured not by our riches, but the impact we had on others. Did we make it a better place for others? And your word is your most valued possession. One did not need written contracts from him, his word was truly golden.
Second, I would say Abraham Lincoln. He was a true leader. He listened to others and learned from them. He was humble, and never considered himself the smartest person in the room. He evaluated, made a decision, changed when he saw he was wrong, or when circumstances changed, and he moved on. And he recognized the good in his fellow human beings – he believed in the better angels in all of us.
What future advances would you like to see in environmental and public health research? And what do you think EPA will look like in 50 years?
For years, EPA has been the beacon of environmental and environmental health research and protection. Early in my career I found that many countries waited to make decisions and act until EPA had spoken and acted in the United States. While a magnificent honor, it is a huge challenge for the Agency. We are and must continue to be up for the challenge. As far as the environment is concerned, we are one world and one community. I believe that EPA’s leadership is critical to improving that community and preserving and improving the environment for future generations. I am optimistic that the American public will demand and expect a strong Agency at the helm of environmental and public health protection and be that world leader. Not to lead by dictum, but rather lead by cooperation, example, and sharing of knowledge and resources.