Natalie Kerr started a full-time position at the Water Survey in January 2022. In her role as an environmental public health specialist, she is part of an expanded focus on the intersection between water resources and public health. She is working on two projects related to private wells—one looking at lead levels and the other investigating Legionella (the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease).
She earned a bachelor's in chemistry from the University of Illinois, Springfield and a master's in environmental health sciences from the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. Her thesis modeled the fate and transport of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment to predict human exposure.
Recently Natalie answered a few questions about her background and her role at ISWS.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at PRI.
I’m doing multiple things on both the lead and Legionella projects, which is a really nice way to be integrated with the team and immersed in the projects. I’m so excited to bring my background in public health, toxicology, and epigenetics to the projects happening at ISWS!
In my free time I love to cook, mountain bike, rock climb, and I definitely still want to be a rock star when I grow up.
What drew you to focus on public health?
Public health is at the intersection of all my interests. It is the field that is working on the questions that I had as an undergraduate in chemistry working for an environmental consulting company. I loved chemistry, was interested in hazardous chemical exposures, and was interested in how the environment’s health influenced human health. I also was fascinated with human development, scientific communication, agriculture, and the ways that our society influences health.
My first week of public health graduate classes I learned about the One Health approach and the DOHaD Hypothesis. The One Health approach "recognizes the interconnection between the health of people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.” The DOHaD (Developmental Origins of Health and Disease) hypotheses was developed by David Barker in the late 1980s and revolves around the ways that environmental stressors of all kinds influence critical developmental stages to ultimately impact lifelong (and sometimes heritable) risk of disease. The class discussions around these topics touched on everything I had been thinking about, and I knew that I was in the right field of study.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
I think that the biggest challenge that I’ve faced in my career has been sexism. I didn’t have a single female STEM professor until graduate school, and that definitely limited my personal and professional goals and growth. There were not many other females in my major-specific classes in undergrad, and we all have stories of experiencing harassment from our male classmates and teachers. I think I was the only female chemistry major to graduate my year. I remember one lab class where I was talking about wanting to go to grad school and a male classmate interrupted me to tell me that I should think about something else because it didn’t matter if I was working hard to be a good candidate and to “give it a few years, you’ll pop out a kid and be done with your career anyway.”
This sort of harassment was present in different scientific jobs that I held, too. I started carrying a bowie knife on my waist when I went to sample streams by myself after a man in a truck swerved at me honking and catcalling. I was 19. That same year a client made a truly disgusting comment about another female coworker when my bosses introduced us, and my bosses laughed with him. The sexism displayed by my mentors and superiors was by far the most damaging. While on my way to a national conference that I’d been accepted into my male advisor told me that I shouldn’t apply to any “difficult, hard science or engineering related” graduate programs. I did anyway and was accepted into a fully funded materials science PhD program. I didn’t end up going that route, and now as I enter the next phase of my career I still find myself battling imposter syndrome. As I narrow down my focus and field I constantly have to remind myself that picking paths that support my lifestyle and goals instead of picking the most competitive, prestigious, or difficult path isn’t a weakness. I’m not here because I’m simply not good enough to do anything else, I’m here because I chose to be and because I am qualified.
What do you wish more people understood about being a scientist?
I wish that people understood risk and uncertainty better. When scientists advise on a topic I think we all (scientists included) would like it if the advice was concrete and easily applicable to all scenarios. But scientific advice and findings have to be taken with regard to the environment and context that they were developed in. As scientists, its our responsibility to communicate and advocate in ways that consider that context but still yield actionable results. Accepting scientific results requires trusting the scientists, which I think would be helped by understanding the ways in which we analyze problems and solutions. Generally speaking, when scientific recommendations are updated and changed its should be seen as logical next step as more data comes in, not as a failure of the original science. We balance the risks and uncertainty as best we can with the data we have.
Also, I with people understood that not all scientists are qualified to speak on all topics and that you have to vet your sources critically! I also think that people’s understanding of these topics would be helped by electing officials that understand science and minimizing sensationalism in the media.
What advice would you give to those just starting out in your field?
If you are just starting out in public health or in science my advice to you is to try the hard things. Every time there’s a topic, software, skill, or area that you find yourself saying “oh I couldn’t do that” or “oh gosh I don’t know anything about that” do a quick Google search. Watch a few YouTube videos and read an article or two until you can at least define what that thing is. My other advice is to reach out to as many people as possible. Research the topics that interest you and find out who is an expert in the field. Email them and talk to them! My last two pieces of advice are to read about your interests in as many different styles of writing as possible and to become learn how to take care of your computer!