Alumna's pesticide discoveries improve public health
- By Amanda Kenyon Waite
"Can you imagine ever driving in Burlington?" Melissa Perry '88 remembers asking her high school friends as they prepared for their learner's permit test. The consensus among the Highgate Center, Vermont, natives accustomed to dirt roads and few traffic lights: "No! That would be so scary."
Burlington's "big city" status in Perry's young eyes made the transition to college at UVM an intimidating one. "The students I was encountering were so much more worldly and educated and affluent; it was a startling experience," she recalls. Enter George Albee, a nationally celebrated UVM psychology professor who, despite his reputation as a pioneer in his field, made Perry feel at home at the university. "I was really starstruck by this famous professor being so welcoming and reassuring that I could not only keep up but do well in this college environment."
Until his death in 2006, Albee was a close friend and mentor to Perry throughout a career that's taken her to bigger cities still. From Baltimore to Boston to D.C., Perry has brought to bear the potential Albee saw, studying at Johns Hopkins, teaching and researching at Harvard, and now chairing the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University.
Perry says the spark for her career began from Albee's thoughts on the need for a shift in psychology from treatment to prevention. While Perry said she had thoughts of going into clinical psychology, "George really turned me on to health issues at the population level rather than at the individual level," she says. That propelled the psychology major to pursue public health and epidemiology in graduate school.
With her master's degree complete and her doctorate well under way, Perry returned to Vermont for a time in the early nineties. At home in Enosburg, she hobby farmed twelve acres, growing vegetables and raising sheep and chickens. At work as a research assistant professor at UVM, her office was based in the Vermont Cancer Center. At the time, Vermont was emerging as one of the states with the highest breast cancer mortality rates. "And that got me looking at what about Vermont, what about rural life that might be increasing risks for cancers," she says. She looked no further than her neighbors — farmers who were applying pesticides on a routine basis. "They had very little information about what the possible health risks were," she says, and rarely followed the cumbersome guidelines for safely applying them. "They took exposure as a matter of fact and didn't think much about what the long-term consequences were."
Perry has devoted the past twenty years to researching the health risks of pesticides. At the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she worked after leaving UVM, she launched a large-scale study of dairy farmers' pesticide exposure and resulting levels of the compounds in the body. The feedback she received from farmers: "Ok, it's in my urine. What does it mean?'" So she took her research to Harvard, creating a lab devoted to discovering the health impacts of pesticides and how they act as endocrine disruptors, impacting both cancer risk and reproductive problems.
"Harvard allowed me to go much deeper," she says, "and I went from quantifying exposure, quantifying metabolites of pesticides to now showing impacts on sperm abnormalities." She also expanded the research, looking at not just effects for agricultural workers but also the effects of compounds ubiquitous to daily life, contemporary pesticides applied in homes and buildings and on lawns.
After thirteen years as a Harvard professor, Perry answered George Washington University's recruitment call to serve as chair in its Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the School of Public Health. She's taken her lab with her and continues her pesticide research as well as work on occupational risks in other industries — from meat packing to construction.
The real benefit of making the move, she says, is in the advantages of her new location. In the nation's capitol she's "steeped in a public health policy milieu," she says. "The city is teeming with service-learning oriented students, and our work factors more prominently in informing and potentially affecting policy." To that end, she's formed a connection with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Worker Protection Standard Office with the intent of providing research data to inform guidelines for protecting agricultural workers from pesticides. Having published more than a hundred scholarly papers related to public health, she's working toward fulfilling her long-held goal, that seed planted by Albee, to improve the population's health through prevention.
While a teenaged Melissa might be astonished at Perry's life in D.C. today, she would find at least one familiar vestige from her rural beginnings. Along with her family, including her two young sons, Perry still farms for fun, keeping bees and growing fruit trees and vegetables in her backyard — all organically, of course.