Alumni Profiles Series: Michelle Embry
Dr. Michelle Embry is the Associate Director at The Health and Environmental Sciences Institute (HESI), a nonprofit dedicated to solving today’s global health and environmental challenges through the engagement of scientists from academia, government, industry, NGOs, and other strategic partners. She has over 15 years of experience in nonprofit environmental science and has collaborated with stakeholders all over the world. She received her B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science and Policy from Duke University in 1998 and received her Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences (Toxicology) from Duke University in 2004. Her thesis work investigated mechanisms of carcinogenesis in fish models under the advisership of Dr. Richard Di Giulio in the Nicholas School of the Environment.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE A PH.D. IN TOXICOLOGY?
As a Duke undergrad, I knew that I loved marine science and biology, but I was really interested in how science could be directly applied to human and environmental health challenges. As one of the few non-medical-track biology majors, I found a second home in the newly established environmental science and policy department at Duke. I decided to double major in biology and environmental science and policy, which introduced me to how technical science is used to support and solve public health and environmental issues. One of the most impactful experiences during my undergrad at Duke was a semester at the Duke Marine Lab. There, I met the late Dr. Patricia McClellan-Green, who passed on her love for ecotoxicology to me. Under her mentorship, I completed an undergraduate independent study project focused on impacts of tributyltin (TBT), a marine antifoulant, on metabolic enzymes in Southern flounder. During my senior year, I presented my work at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), where I was able to meet and network with many others interested in similar disciplines. At that time, I decided to further pursue this field and eventually accepted an offer to stay at Duke to pursue my Ph.D. in the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program (ITEHP) in the laboratory of Dr. Richard Di Giulio.
WHAT WERE YOUR CAREER GOALS IN GRADUATE SCHOOL, AND HOW DID YOU PURSUE THEM?
Looking back, I don’t remember that I was ever “locked-in” to the professor/ academic route. I knew that I loved science, and I was excited to learn more about toxicology through my graduate research and classes. But truthfully, I was ready to move on from the bench and explore the application and integration side. I think I realized pretty early on that I wanted to work in a space where I could apply science to real-world issues, though I will admit I did not know where that might lead.
During my fourth year of graduate school, I attended a career fair that was organized by the Duke and Yale Schools of the Environment and held in Washington, D.C. I met some ecological risk assessors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Pesticide Programs, a connection that eventually led to my first post-graduate position in Washington, D.C. within this office. During my time there, I learned about risk assessment and regulation, which was a great foundation for my next step. After nearly two years at EPA, I jumped into the nonprofit world at The Health and Environmental Sciences Institute (HESI). In this role, I combined my toxicology training from Duke with my regulatory background from EPA to manage projects with the aim of improving environmental and public health.
WHAT DOES YOUR CURRENT ROLE ENTAIL?
HESI’s mission is to resolve global health and environmental challenges through the engagement of scientists from academia, government, industry, NGOs, and other strategic partners. One way we do this is by convening multi-sector committees related to identified health and safety challenges. My role is to provide leadership, technical direction, and guidance to these collaborative committees, which are generally focused on chemical risk assessment, with particular emphasis on development of new approaches to improve the science that underpins chemicals management, ensuring their safe use for both humans and the environment. I currently manage or co-manage five major projects, including projects on development of new approaches to evaluate chemical bioaccumulation, alternative methods for ecological risk assessment, andidentification of in silico and in vitro approaches to assess the safety of botanical dietary supplements. Our Risk Assessment in the 21st Century (RISK21) Committee is actively engaged in training and outreach programs in South America and Asia, and our PBPK Committee is working on physiologically based pharmacokinetics approaches and strategies that can optimize the design, use, and interpretation of animal toxicology studies.
For each project we set out a series of deliverables and goals to work toward, which may include developing a decision framework, designing and conducting novel experimental studies or methods, performing collective analysis of shared data, holding multi-stakeholder workshops, or providing trainings or seminars. We also put all of our work into the peer-reviewed literature, so there is a lot of manuscript writing. Each committee is different, but that’s what makes it fun and never boring. I’d say my overarching duty is to bring together the experts and foster collaboration and communication amongst them, helping to distill key ideas into actionable work products. Every expert knows their piece of the puzzle so well, but often they don’t interact with the other pieces. It’s my job to see the full picture and understand how each piece fits together so we can solve these very complex environmental and human health issues.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS OF YOUR JOB?
First, I love working on a collaborative team to apply science to real-world issues. I get to work with amazing scientists on HESI staff as well as experts across my committees. This was an overarching goal of mine throughout my training, but at the time, I didn’t see how it would be realized. I have been at HESI for almost 16 years now, and to this day I am grateful for the work I get to do here. Also, up until the global pandemic, travel was a huge part of my job. I would travel nationally and internationally to attend and organize meetings and conferences, give presentations on our work, meet with stakeholders, or hold training courses. I have some very exciting new projects that are working with colleagues in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Ghana, and Thailand—just just to name a few. It has been amazing to collaborate with the experts from all over the globe and get a better understanding of the specific environmental and human health challenges they face.
HOW DID YOUR DUKE EXPERIENCE PREPARE YOU FOR THIS CAREER PATH?
My undergraduate and graduate career at Duke was integral in providing the opportunities and training to be successful in my career. I really enjoyed the proximity of Duke to other major universities and government agencies in the Triangle. During my Ph.D., I took classes at both NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill. I regularly attended talks given by researchers from EPA and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) through the Toxicology Program. These opportunities helped me learn how to build connections with others in the field and greatly expanded my network.
WHAT’S A FAVORITE MEMORY FROM YOUR TIME AT DUKE?
When I was working on my thesis research, I used catfish as a model to study differential susceptibility to chemical carcinogenesis. It was difficult to source one of the catfish species to use in research, so my advisor and I got a permit to catch some in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. In true resourceful graduate student fashion, I put on my waders, grabbed my net, and went knee-deep in the duck ponds to scoop out a few for my studies. Needless to say, I attracted some attention, including from the maintenance workers, who asked that I remove myself from the ponds until they could work out the details. All ended well–I got the fish for my experiments!
Christine E. Crute
Ph.D. candidate in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program
Christine Crute is a Ph.D. candidate in the Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program. Her overarching research objective is to better understand how environmental factors impact maternal and child health throughout reproduction, pregnancy, and child development. She is passionate about science education and communication and hopes to pursue a related career to promote science literacy, community empowerment, and improved health outcomes for all.