Use Your Knowledge for Good: David Jones '82 on Using Science to Serve the Community

Use Your Knowledge for Good: David Jones '82 on Using Science to Serve the Community
Amy Barnard

We are all interdependent. You don’t live as an isolated, separate self. Your survival brain might try to deny it, but we need each other. And we can benefit each other and benefit ourselves at the same time.

 

What | I lead the Site Assessment and Consultation unit for the State of Minnesota. 

What They Do | Our team’s job is to come in after a chemical spill, radiation leak, or other problem and  figure out where exactly the problem is, where it’s going, and then how to prevent hazardous materials from getting into people’s bodies.

Why My Skill Set Matters | Scientists tend to be very careful and disciplined in their thinking and in their behaviors...these are good people to put to work on hard problems that take time; the ones where you really don't want to make wrong choices by jumping to conclusions or taking shortcuts.

How Serving With My Skills Has Changed Me | I’ve come to realize that the quality of our inner and outer life is dictated by our choices: where we spend our time, where we put our attention, what we choose to pursue, and how we do it. Our choices also affect others, and their choices affect us…we inherit the consequences of the many choices we make. Employing science to serve the health of our community is a choice I make to sow good seeds that I hope future generations will reap. At the same time, working to benefit the health of others bears good fruit in my own heart and mind.

 

 

Q&A

How would you describe your job to a lay-person?

Basically, my job is to make sure that water is safe to drink, soil is uncontaminated by hazardous chemicals, and air is safe to breathe. I work to ensure that if your kids are playing in a park or you’re gardening or swimming you don't have to worry about the safety of those environments.

More specifically, I work in the Division of Environmental Health on hazardous materials sites. I supervise a group that does health assessment work; we advise regulators like the Pollution Control Agency and the EPA on human health risks.

Our role came into being long ago when some people worried that health was not being addressed adequately at hazardous materials sites being investigated and cleaned up. Congress created the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in response to these concerns. One job of the new agency was to be a player at the table representing the interests of the public's health, and we got a grant starting in the late ‘80s to do that work in Minnesota.

 

Aside from testing for safe water, soil, and air, what else do you do?

We also provide a lot of outreach and education, communicating to the public about the sites we investigate and about exposure to and health risks of hazardous materials.

If you want to know about dumps or landfills or places where chlorinated solvents are in the groundwater for example…I’m your guy! I know about where things are contaminated.

 

You’ve worked with the State of Minnesota for most of your career. What did you do before your current role?

Early on I was a student in Infectious Disease Epidemiology and worked on outbreaks. We did a lot of surveillance for HIV, which was really just becoming a huge deal at that time. We did a series of studies every year to monitor and track the progression and the changes in the disease.

I also worked in Emergency Preparedness for about a decade, and then for another decade or so I worked in Indoor Air Quality. One area we studied was children’s exposure to asthmagenic substances, which had me in and out of local schools on a regular basis, testing air quality.

 

Have you worked on any especially interesting jobs over the years?

As an epidemiologist and a physical sciences researcher I managed a biomonitoring study with the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe that lasted six years.

It was a great experience. To spend time on a reservation working with the tribe and seeing their interests, which can be very different from the mainstream culture, was eye opening. They have different ways of seeing things and different ways of living; their life ways are very important to them in profound ways.

To spend time on a reservation working with the tribe and seeing their interests, which can be very different from the mainstream culture, was eye opening.

What challenges have you faced over the years in these roles?

You'd probably hear this from most people who work in public services, but I would say the expectations are vast, the needs are many, and resources are so limited. And that's hard, because you want to do as good of a job as you can, and you know that these things can impact people’s health.

We're scrambling all the time, trying to determine what is the most important fire put out right now. So it's like, pots are boiling all the time, but there just aren’t the resources to catch everything quickly and to an ideal degree. I wish that we could find a way to move more resources and humanpower into solving environmental crises quickly and fully.

 

How has your job impacted your ideas about what it means to use your skills for the good of others?

Hindsight and age bring a certain perspective, at least they have for me. Here is what I have been thinking: We are each the heir to and owner of our words and our deeds. The quality of our inner- and outer-life really is dictated by our choices…what we do every day, where we spend our time, where we put our attention, what we choose to pursue and how we do it.

None of us is truly separate: We are all interdependent. We are affected by others, and our actions affect them. So, in a sense, doing what is good for others even contains an element of self interest; because of our interdependence, that good will likely impact us as well.

I want to live with peace in my mind and heart about what I am doing and what seeds I am planting. I think that sometimes those seeds will come back to bear fruit I will enjoy. But sometimes I am planting a tree that I will never sit under the shade of. And that is good.

You know, you can go around in a trance, following the crowd and just trying to hang on to what's pleasurable while pushing away anything uncomfortable. Or you can be open to the whole mystery and wonder of this existence, putting your attention to what is good and meaningful.

So, I choose to pursue a life where I use my skill set to invest in the greater good of our community, and that choice impacts the quality of my inner life. 

So, I choose to pursue a life where I use my skill set to invest in the greater good of our community, and that choice impacts the quality of my inner life. 

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