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Scientists' Nightstand: Emily Monosson

Anna Lena Phillips

Emily Monosson is the editor of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out (Cornell University Press, 2008). Her focus as a toxicologist is the impact of emerging contaminants on human health and the environment, particularly aquatic systems. She is on the stewardship committee of the Encyclopedia of Earth. She writes The Neighborhood Toxicologist, a blog about toxicology and public health, and edits a blog associated with Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Emily%20MonossonClick to Enlarge Image I am an environmental toxicologist and mother of two. Years ago, when the kids came along, I chose to work part-time so that we didn't have to send them to day care full-time or enroll them in an after-school program (my husband is employed full-time as an ecologist with the United States Geological Survey). Once I'd made that decision, I inadvertently became a scientific vagabond, starting along a career path that's been nontraditional but almost always interesting. Through consulting, teaching and writing, I've had the opportunity to investigate a broader swath of environmental contaminant issues than if I'd stayed focused in the lab.

The choices I've made and the consequences of those choices led directly to the publication of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory. I needed to hear from other women scientists about how they managed career and family. I think, particularly for those of us who have stepped out of the traditional career trajectory, it's helpful to know we're not alone.

When my time isn't devoted to family or science, I'm biking, hiking, gardening or reading.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Lately I've been interested in the history of chemical regulation and production. I want to understand how, after more than 30 years of experience with regulation and a more mature field of toxicology and contaminants research, we continue to contaminate the environment, wildlife and ourselves. So I've gravitated toward books like Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, by David Michaels (Oxford University Press, 2008), which was good, although I liked the depth of Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner (University of California Press, 2002), better.

I'm also reading The War on Bugs by Will Allen (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008)—I'm just getting started but I like all the old ads and illustrations he's collected; High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, by Elizabeth Grossman (Shearwater Books, 2006), a good book relating the dismal state of electronics recycling (though I would have liked more toxicology); and Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, by Mark Schapiro (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007), a good introduction to the differences between how the United States and the European Union approach chemical regulation. Finally, I've just read Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, by Elizabeth Royte (Bloomsbury, 2008), which is not about contaminants but does address issues of regulation and the ownership of water (an issue my community recently faced when Nestlé came to town). It's a good read, but I would have liked it better if it had included more science.

For fun, I just finished the novel The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2007). I don't usually read books like this, but I read it for a reading group and am glad I did. It's a bit of fluff, but it also highlights how important it is to support one another and to accept support from others—especially in these days when many of us, particularly women, struggle to figure out how best to combine family and career, some of us striking out along nontraditional paths. Interestingly, although there are plenty of nonfiction books on this subject, I'd never picked one up until I wrote the book proposal for Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory and had to write about competing books!

I'm also in the middle of Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin (The Penguin Press, 2005) and The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, 2007).

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

For the most part, I read books in bed at night. With my morning coffee it's Science and Science News, and in between it's journal articles and reports on one contaminant or another. I read a lot.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

I don't have any real favorites—although sometimes I'll read one author until I get to a book I don't like. Over the past few years I've read a few books by Mark Helprin, including A Winter's Tale (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983) and A Soldier of the Great War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991). After reading the latter, I thought all high school kids or those old enough to enter the military ought to read it, so I left a copy of the nearly 800-page book on the table for my son, who needed a book for social studies this summer. He didn't even pick it up, and instead left a note on top with one word: "Really??" Helprin's writing is beautiful, and I love the way he combines the mystical with the historical.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

My memory for books is so bad that I'm sure I've read some books I thought were great—but can't remember. So here are three "best" that I can recall:

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves (The Penguin Press, 2004). I loved the idea suggested in this book that there is a place for all books forever. When I think of the piles of great fiction, all the imagination it took to write those books and their relatively short life span, it'd be nice to think that they really do live on forever, somewhere. Even though it was a translation, I also loved the writing, although I wish I could have read it in Spanish.

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon Books, 1991). This is the only book I've ever read aloud to another adult (to my husband while we were camping). It was writing that I just had to share, though some passages were difficult to get through without choking up. Tempest Williams's personal chronicle of her mother's battle with cancer, interspersed with the natural history and changes occurring on Great Salt Lake, was so moving that this is one of the few books I've bought just to give away to others.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes (Simon and Schuster, 1986), details one of the most important events of the 20th century related to science and society. It's dense with history, politics and science, and I remember being surprised that I could barely put it down. Imagine how things might be if we'd focused that kind of effort on renewable energy rather than destructive energy.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

This one is easy: Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, by Alfred Korzybski (1933), is the most influential book that I've never read. There are two copies of it haunting me from the bookshelf in my office. I've tried several times but haven't made it very far past all of the prefaces (there are four). My father, who passed away a few years ago, was very interested in general semantics, and was known for sending copies of Science and Sanity to those he really cared about. Because that book influenced his life, it has, in turn, influenced mine (thanks in part to Korzybski's ideas, communicating with my dad could at times be quite a workout). Korzybski's diagram, the Structural Differential, which my father also gave to me, hangs on my office door. It's a reminder that our knowledge of anything is only partial because of (if I've got this right) limitations in interpretation and communication. When we're communicating, things aren't always what they seem—we process and filter everything. I suppose I ought to give it another try.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Science and Sanity—this has to count for three.

What books would you recommend to young readers?

With two young readers at home (ages 12 and 14), I honestly can't think of any book I'd recommend that would turn them on to science and that they'd actually read and enjoy. And of course I can't remember which books I loved as a kid.

My kids read a lot of fantasy. As a family we have enjoyed the Inkspell series by Cornelia Funke, translated by Anthea Bell (Chickenhouse/Scholastic, 2003-2008). The story is a tribute to the magic of books and reading, and we're looking forward to the release of the third book. When they were very young, we read Come On, Rain by Karen Hesse, with pictures by Jon J. Muth (Scholastic Press, 1999), many times. It is a beautifully illustrated celebration of one of our most precious resources. Another good one is, of course, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1971).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, by epidemiologist Devra Lee Davis (Basic Books, 2002), is one of the more readable books about environmental pollution, along with Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1997), by Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist gifted with the ability to write poetically about chemical contaminants and her own bout with cancer.

Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, by Philip Ball (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000). I think it's important to be well acquainted with one of the most important chemicals of life, water.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press, 2006). I don't know if this counts as a science book, but Pollan does an amazing job of showing how interconnected we are with our environment—and what happens when we disconnect.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), which I'd also recommend for scientists within my field. I am embarrassed to admit that I just read this for the first time this year. We should all be embarrassed that almost 40 years later it is still relevant. Although it's not discipline-related, I'd also suggest The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn (University of Chicago Press, 1962), another one that I read for the first time just five years ago. I wish someone had suggested reading it back in graduate school.

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