Devon Payne-Sturges

Devon Payne-Sturges


What is your area of research or expertise that you bring to the Landscapes collaboration?

My training is in environmental health sciences, but I also have a lot of experience working in the policy realm. Before I joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, I worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency for twelve years and a lot of the work I did there was around science policy issues, focusing on vulnerable populations, focusing on protecting children’s health, and working on environmental justice issues, and environmental health disparities.  I bring a lot of those experiences into my research and in my teaching.  One of my favorite topics to work on, that really comes from that experience of working at the EPA is this issue about cumulative exposures and cumulative risks, recognizing that we are in a situation where we’re not just exposed to one contaminant or one pollutant at a time.  The agency was established to regulate pollution emissions into the environment through siloed programs(e.g., the air office, the water office, the chemical management office, the land and solid waste office, etc.) . However, the human body doesn’t care if the pollutant is only coming from air, it’s receiving everything. We encounter pollution from air, from your water, from your food, and from land, and we haven’t figured out from a policy perspective how to meet that reality. We regulate things one at a time in isolation, not only from these other exposures or contaminants that might also be happening, but also in isolation from other conditions that actually may enhance the toxicity or the negative effects of these exposures.  Now, in the past ten to twenty years we’ve gathered a lot of evidence illustrating that it’s the combination of these exposures that are having a tremendous effect on health. But, it’s not just chemical exposures, it’s also social context that is being demonstrated enhancing toxicity. Researchers have been uncovering this both in epidemiological studies as well as animal studies. For example, one of my mentors Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta, a neurotoxicologist at Rochester Medical Center, looks at the combined effects of prenatal stress and lead exposure using animal models. She is investigating what combined chemical and non-chemical exposures mean for the offspring in her animals. She’s finding severe effects in neurological behavioral outcomes. And so similarly, researchers like Maggie herself are looking at these kinds of factors in people, for example, what does it mean if you’re both exposed to say lead in the environment, but also living in poverty, What is the combined effect of that?  But the way our policy infrastructure is set up  doesn’t really take those things into consideration, so I’m very interested in asking how do we solve that?

What do you find challenging or exciting about interdisciplinary collaboration?

I like learning new things, and I think that’s what’s exciting about working with folks who are from other disciplines, because you can get set in your ways the way you look at a problem; maybe you’re only seeing it one way. But then, if you’re working in collaboration with others coming from different disciplines, especially from the social sciences, they have a whole different way of looking at the issue that maybe you would never have thought of. I like the learning that comes along with that. A challenge, but also something I think is really cool is how different disciplines use different terms. Sometimes we use the same word but have different meanings, and there can be the talking past each other,so I think the key is spending the time to learn each other’s language, and then you kind of create your own language, so that you are able to communicate well together.

What’s one common misconception about your area of research that you’d like to dispel?

I think a lot of people might see environmental science research as pretty doomsday.  We’re the negative group because we’re always talking about all the bad things, from the water that you’re drinking from the food that you’re eating, and of course, the climate crisis. Doomsday.  But I think to flip that around is that we need to understand those issues in order for a solution to be identified. And that’s a call to action that in environmental health sciences there needs to be more emphasis on not only identifying the bad, but also talking about the solution.

How did you become interested in structural racism and health? 

 As soon as you think about environmental health, the first problem that comes to mind is environmental injustice. Very early on in this social movement the word environmental racism was being used to describe the situation where certain populations, especially black populations and black communities, were on the receiving end of so much environmental harm,being the places where waste sites were located. Maybe you’re familiar with the landmark report from United Church of Christ, called the Toxic Waste and Race Report, where the authors  were looking at the correlation between the location of toxic waste or hazards, waste, treatment, storage, disposal facilities, and the racial makeup of communities. People will say, yes, this is another indicator of racism. But this report came out in the late eighties and some people say work on this subject really started even before that. We’ve done such a good job at the describing the symptoms of a larger problem, and what’s missing to me is more sophisticated work to understand the mechanisms of why these things are happening, and to illustrate how this is happening, where the decisions are happening, and who is contributing to these problems instead of just simply describing them.  I think there’s been a shift in the last couple of years, with everybody’s focus on racism–now we’re even saying the word racism way more.  Sometimes people used to say the “r word” like it was something you couldn’t talk about. The term environmental racism kind of went away because some people decided that using the “r word” was too radical. So That’s how it became environmental justice, which was seen as more positive. But there was a feeling of drawing a veil over what we’re actually talking about. But because of everything that happened in the last two years, especially the Black Lives Matter movement and living through this pandemic and seeing who is most harmed by it, suddenly people are a little bit more comfortable with actually saying racism. So now there’s more conversation about structural racism and systemic racism, which has been fantastic. Now the doorway is open to have a more sophisticated conversation about how we understand how it’s happening? How do we make something that is embedded in our society more visible, so that we can correct it? And that requires us to move away from just simply describing the symptoms or the outcomes and instead work to understand the social mechanisms that are leading to those impacts.

What’s the academic path that brought you to where you are now?

 My undergraduate training is actually engineering and after I graduated from college I worked for an engineering consulting firm. Some of the work that we did for clients included doing an assessment of industrial operations, reviewing exposures and looking at hazards in the work environment.  We were not allowed to speak with the workers: we would just have to go do our sampling. We would have personal protective equipment on, while the workers, of course, had nothing, and they saw us coming into their spaces, and testing the air, or taking other samples, and we were instructed not to have conversations with the workers, and I thought that was terribly wrong. So I realized that my interests were really more about understanding the role of people in all of this. So I left that job and I wound up working for environmental nonprofits in Washington, D.C. where the focus was more on engaging with people and understanding the relationship between people and their environment. My boss at that time, Dr. Paul Locke, who was a fabulous mentor, was completing his doctorate in public health at the time, and encouraged me to go back to school. He introduced me to his professors, and that’s how I wound up getting my MPH at Hopkins, and then I stayed on and did the PhD and the rest is history. And it was the best decision.

If you had the opportunity to get one question answered by an omniscient being, what would you ask? (this is meant to be a lighthearted question–we’re trying to get to the heart of what you are most curious about, whether within your field of research or beyond! Feel free to think big!)

 I would like to know what we need to do to build or increase solidarity across race and class lines. I am specifically using the word solidarity because I was inspired by this book that I read last summer, The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. She talks about the need for solidarity. If we had a magic wand, or if there was an omniscient being that could answer this way, I’d want to know how we can do a better job of increasing solidarity, because that’s the key to so many things. We could do so much more together, and and and the policies that are needed are going to benefit everybody, from health care for all to dealing with the climate crisis.

I would also like to ask how we make it so that we are no longer doomed to repeat the past?

How can we really truly be students of history and learn, so that we don’t repeat past mistakes. I’m rewatching the Henry Louis Gates special Reconstruction on PBS. I saw it a while back, but I’m rewatching and I’m catching more information this time. We’re doing a disservice to ourselves by not ensuring that we all have an understanding of our history. I think it’s very important that everyone have a strong understanding of our country’s racial history.

Anything else you want to share?

Read The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee and watch Reconstruction on PBS and we’ll develop some racial solidarity and some understanding of our history!