Celebrating 75 Years of Fulbright Stories
In celebration of the Fulbright Program’s 75th anniversary, we’re looking back at the experiences of Fulbrighters Dr. Bruce Fowler and Evan Patrohay, two scientists who are passionate about the conversation of our planet.
In 1994-95, Dr. Bruce Fowler completed a Fulbright in Stockholm, Sweden. He studied toxicology and is a world-renowned expert in the field with over 260 research papers and book chapters on the topic. Dr. Fowler is an active advocate for the Fulbright Program and supports climate change policy nationally and internationally.
Evan Patrohay is a recent graduate of the biosystems engineering program at Clemson University. He is a 2021-22 Fulbrighter currently in Tromsø, Norway, studying the effects of climate change on the ecosystem of the Arctic Circle. He has been an activist for climate change policy since he learned of the severity of the issue and hopes to use his knowledge to support him in a career in environmental policy.
The two ecological experts shared how climate change is affecting us all, what we can do to learn and to help, and how their experience as Fulbrighters impacts their worldviews.
Note: Dr. Fowler and Evan Patrohay were interviewed separately. Their answers have been condensed into a single interview for ease of reading.
When and where does/did your Fulbright take place? What are/were you studying?
Evan Patrohay: I am conducting my Fulbright research at the University of Tromsø in Norway, the world’s northernmost university, from 2021-2022. I am studying the effects of climate change on Arctic ecosystems by examining how the traits of tiny sea-ice organisms, called ice meiofauna, are shifting over time.
Dr. Bruce Fowler: My Fulbright was in 1994-1995 at the Institute of Environmental Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden. I was studying the toxicology of what are called III-V semiconductors; these are things such as gallium arsenide. Do you have any clocks or radios or devices with glowing red numbers? That’s gallium arsenide.
Dr. Fowler, what were you expecting to learn?
Dr. Fowler: I was expecting to learn about apoptosis, also known as programmed cell death. The reality met expectations to a degree, but not exactly as I expected. I spent a lot of time doing several things not related to research. I gave seminars and taught classes. I was also privileged to attend the Nobel Prize Ceremony with a number of other Fulbrighters in 1994 thanks to the to the efforts of the Swedish Fulbright Commission Director. In Stockholm, I had a technician, several colleagues in the Institute, and made a number of friends from other countries including one from Argentina who was also interested in studying apoptosis. A very international group. Overall, this was a very interesting experience.
What would you like to/did you do after your Fulbright?
Patrohay: After I return to the United States, I plan to pursue a career in environmental policy. I originally pursued a Fulbright Grant because I knew it was an excellent way to witness firsthand the monumental ecological effects of climate change on the Arctic. I hope to combine my knowledge in political science, environmental engineering, and sustainability with my Fulbright experiences to inform the public of the dangers that climate change poses and to create meaningful policy.
Though I would like to begin in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, I intend to reach for the state or national level in the future.
Dr. Fowler: I continued working on my grants back here in the U.S., and I was back being a professor at the University of Maryland. I was also asked to chair the Fulbright Review Committee for Scandinavia. For two years, I led the committee in reviewing prospective applicants who wished to do Fulbright in Nordic countries. I was able to share my experience while selecting good candidates for this honor.
Three or four years later, I moved on to become the Associate Director of Science in the Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR) which is under the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. ATSDR deals with a large number of toxic chemicals and was initially established under the Superfund Act. My job was to review documents prior to their release. I was now out of the laboratory. I had moved on but continued to collaborate with my friends in Sweden in writing and editing books on toxic metals. I was in Atlanta, Georgia, up until the point that I retired to Maryland.
Evan, why are you passionate about climate change?
Patrohay: This question is very interesting to me because, until three years ago, I did not believe in climate change. It was not until halfway through college, when my studies and friends presented the existing science and observations to me, that I understood the gravity of the situation. I was already passionate about the environment and stopping climate change aligned naturally with those affections. I never imagined I would be researching it thousands of miles away from home and in the Arctic Circle just a few short years later!
I find climate change profoundly interesting because it is more personal, more political, more philosophical, and more far-reaching than nearly any other environmental threat we face; it is a massive puzzle that we must use all our capabilities to solve.
Dr. Fowler, how has the field of toxicology changed since your Fulbright?
Dr. Fowler: Many fields in toxicology have gotten increasingly molecular: flowcharts with various metabolic pathways connected and interacting with each other. If these pathways don’t communicate with each other correctly or the communication is disrupted, the result could be cell death or cancer. It is now appreciated that chemicals such as toxic metals can interfere with these communication processes. DNA and genetic inheritance are important components, but the biology of these systems is much more complex. There are other molecules that regulate molecular communication called signaling pathways that regulate DNA. Apoptosis is a general term that includes a number of what are called “adverse outcome pathways (AOPs)”, which result in cellular dysfunction.
Evan, what kind of changes will the world need to make to preserve our environment for future generations?
Patrohay: Oftentimes I hear disgruntled people lamenting how governments and big businesses must do more to protect the climate, and this is true. But it is also true that we in our capacity as individuals have influenced the emissions humankind has emitted, both directly from our households and indirectly from our consumption and demand. While large national and global-scale solutions are necessary, they must have a local foundation to stand on.
Support for environmental protection and accountability for green measures will be greatest when it comes from the hearts of the people, where they can strive for sustainability in their own towns and cities, for I have discovered that there is an intimate connection between the health of our communities and the health of our environment in ways I never knew before.
I believe that green infrastructure is one of the most promising solutions in our arsenal as it can manage water, limit pollution, and bring environmental beauty into our urban centers more efficiently than nearly anything else. Shifting away from monocultures and husbandry in agriculture, reviving local self-sufficiency in produce through community gardens, and working to limit suburban sprawl by incentivizing a return to city centers will also help. These are solutions that strengthen communities, serve as a foundation for national policies, and make our environmental endeavors more genuine and personal.
How have you engaged with other Fulbrighters with similar interests to your own?
Patrohay: I have been lucky because there is another Fulbright Scholar in Tromsø also researching Arctic ecosystems who I have been able to engage with during my stay. She and I have already partnered on some data-gathering trips, with more to come. The Norwegian Fulbright Commission has also put us in contact with current and previous Fulbrighters, many which have studied ecology as well.
Fowler: I’m here in the Washington area and connected with other Fulbrighters, some of whom, like me, are also interactive with members of the U.S. Congress. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we [Fulbrighters] used to walk the halls of congress, and I hope we will be able to do so again soon.
Do you have any messages for your fellow Fulbright alum regarding your field of study?
Patrohay: I came to the Arctic Circle because I wanted to learn more about a region on the ‘front lines’ of climate change, as the Arctic is warming at over twice the global average. There are many other places around the world that fit this description too, from glaciers and island nations to regions of desertification and permafrost loss, and Fulbright can take you within reach of any of them. Yet, in the not-so-distant future, it is likely that countless other locations will be added to this list, as climate effects become more profound and the ‘front lines’ expand. Therefore, I would recommend finding what interests you most to research: niche or grand, remote, or close to home. Knowledge is lacking in a myriad of categories and the opportunities are endless.
Dr. Fowler: It’s important to understand interactions between chemicals in the global environment and the environment and biological systems. The global view is that there are 80,000 to 100,000 chemicals in commercial use in the US and about 500-1,000 new ones each year. They are present in everything, even our food. For example, regulatory agencies try to set limits for a number of the older known toxic chemicals, but many are also in places you wouldn’t expect them or present new forms such as nanomaterials for which the toxicology database is very limited. A number of these chemicals have been locked up in global ice stores over the last 75 years but are now being released due to global warming and melting ice deposits.
In addition, there are now new chemicals and forms of these chemicals to be considered. If you go to the grocery store, many foods including apples, bananas, and other produce may be put in very thin plastic-like packaging. You may notice that this material is thin and that it doesn’t feel like it is made from plastic. That is because it may not be. It could be made from a high technology called material called chitosan, which is produced from the chitin of shellfish such as crabs. Someone figured out that you can grind up old crab shells pulverize and extract them before rolling them into thin sheets. Very ecological. Someone else realized if they impregnate chitosan with nanoparticles such as silver, copper, and other metals. Nanosilver is an anti-bacterial agent, which is why it’s in food packaging to help prevent spoilage and extend shelf life. There is a good reason to use it, but the idea is that it’s something that most people don’t know about. There is an ongoing discussion as to whether the presence of nanosilver in food packaging is a risk to human health. I don’t know the answer, and I suspect that neither does anyone else.
Do you have advice for young people who want to study in your field? Any advice for your fellow Fulbrighters?
Patrohay: Climate change is so far-reaching that its effects can be researched in ecosystems spanning every part of the globe. One only needs to tailor their interests to a particular portion of it. Have the confidence that no research will be useless, as our knowledge of climate change, its timeline, and its effects is still so deficient.
Always keep in mind what possible solutions maybe, as the expertise of scientists is an underrated but critical asset to policymakers. Weigh every individual, local, state, national, and global measure and consider how each can be blended. Be open-minded and strive to be as well-read, communicative, and empathetic as possible. Never skip an opportunity to share your research and expertise with others, and always listen to their responses. The solution will not be easy, but we are all in this together.
Dr. Fowler: It is a great career. There are very few toxicologists in the world, actually, relative to other branches of science, only a handful. They play an important role in a variety of fields related to chemical and drug safety. Big pharma and a number of other companies want to have a toxicology assessment of any new product they are going to put in the marketplace because if there is something unwholesome about that material if people eat, drink, or inhale it, they want to know problems first.
Also, something I would tell any young person going into toxicology is to learn a foreign language. My second language is German, which I took in high school. Swedish is a related Teutonic language with many similarities. As a Fulbrighter, it’s very handy to have a working knowledge language of the country in which you are staying even if you are not fluent. Do not expect that everyone will be able to speak English. It is important for your hosts to know that you took the time to learn at least some polite expressions. The ability to speak a few polite phrases is an ice breaker that makes your Fulbright experience more comfortable for everyone.
Finally, a lot of decisions are made on an increasingly multi-national basis. There are 180+ countries on the planet. As Greta Thunberg has observed, people in the northern hemisphere need to talk with people in the southern hemisphere because that is where many developing countries are located. Those are the people that need to be heard. The ability to communicate effectively will be critical to the future of our planet. Most of our industrial and intellectual activity is going on north of the equator whereas many of the developing countries are in the southern hemisphere – yet another reason to be able to communicate and bring people from impacted countries into the conversation. The Fulbright Program can play an important role in these communications because of its global reach. We are all living on a spaceship called planet Earth and for the time being, it is our only home, so best to take good care of it.
Fulbright Interns Samuel Lachance and Nathan Vince contributed to this piece.
Photo 1: Evan Patrohay in Norway
Photo 2: Bruce Fowler and fellow Fulbright Alumni on a 2019 Fulbright Association Insight Trip to Iceland
Photo 3: Evan Patrohay and friends in Norway
Photo 4: Bruce Fowler