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Extramural Researchers Honored

By Eddy Ball
November 2006

Beate Ritz
Beate Ritz, winner of the Robert M. Zweig, M. D., Memorial Award. (Photo courtesy of University of California Los Angeles)

Beverly Wright and Judith Stavisky
Beverly Wright (left) received the special Robert Wood Johnson Gulf Coast Community Health Leadership Award from Judith Stavisky, Senior Program Officer, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (Photo courtesy of Susan Laine)

In two separate ceremonies on October 12, extramural grantees Beate Ritz, M.D., Ph.D., and Beverley Wright, Ph.D., were honored with prestigious awards for their extraordinary contributions to environmental health and justice. In Los Angeles, Ritz, an epidemiologist at the University of California Los Angeles, received the Robert M. Zweig, M.D., Memorial Award from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the air pollution control agency for Orange County and the urban portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Wright, a professor of sociology and the founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) at Dillard University in New Orleans, was honored in Scottsdale, Ariz. with a $120,000 National Robert Wood Johnson Gulf Coast Community Health Leadership Award.

AQMD praised Ritz for her work on the effects of air pollution on infants and fetuses in the South Coast Air Basin of southern California, a nearly 7,000 square mile non-desert area populated by approximately 15 million people. Her most recent study, supported by an NIEHS grant, investigated the possible links between pollutants and infant deaths in cases recorded between 1989 and 2000. The research examined both short-term (weeks before death) and longer-term (one to six months before death) exposures to specific air pollutants in 19,664 infant deaths. William A. Burke, Ed.D., chairman of AQMD's Governing Board, described Ritz and the other two top award winners as "our community's progressive leaders who have made a commitment to healthy air quality."

The award is especially meaningful to Ritz because it recognizes her career-long commitment to preventive medicine. As a young medical student at the University of Hamburg, Germany, Ritz had already realized her vocational mission. "I was less interested in taking care of sick patients," she said, "than in learning why they had become sick in the first place." After immigrating to America, she pursued advanced degrees at the UCLA School of Public Health and became an occupational and environmental epidemiologist. In addition to her NIEHS-supported work in air quality and respiratory health, Ritz is co-director of the UCLA Center for Gene-Environment Studies in Parkinson's Disease, also funded by NIEHS.

Wright's Community Health Leadership Program (CHLP) award recognizes her contributions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While working from temporary headquarters in Atlanta and Baton Rouge, Wright coordinated recovery efforts for her city and pressed for services to help poor residents. A Katrina evacuee who experienced great personal loss, Wright worked tirelessly to inform agencies involved in providing aid and recovery efforts about the seriousness of the disaster and to raise awareness of the environmental justice issues involved.

For the past ten years, she has administered NIEHS-funded minority worker training (MWT) programs and brownfields minority worker training programs with exceptional job placement rates. Administrators of the NIEHS Worker Education and Training Program praised the high level of collaboration and grass roots involvement in the "Safe Way Back Home" project conducted by the DSCEJ under her leadership and the United Steelworkers of America, who provided safety and health training for residents and workers striving to rebuild an East New Orleans neighborhood. In 2006, she co-authored the Russell Sage Foundation report on the disaster, "In the Wake of the Storm: Environment, Disaster, and Race After Katrina."

Wright was one of five recipients who each received $105,000 to continue their work, in addition to a $15,000 personal award. In presenting the awards, CHLP Director Catherine Dunham, Ed.D., underscored the importance of grass roots efforts to help victims of the disaster. "Last summer's devastating hurricanes brought into focus for all Americans the gaping holes in this country's safety net," she said. "It reinforced what we know to be true[,]... that local leaders taking the initiative are really the first and best responders. They deserve this special award as recognition of their extraordinary contribution to the recovery effort."

Both AQMD and CHLP have a history of recognizing accomplishments in the areas of environmental health and justice. 2006 marks the eighteenth year that South Coast AQMD has presented Clean Air Awards for outstanding contributions to air quality in the region. CHLP awards $1.2 million each year to health leaders who have surmounted substantial obstacles to improve the health of their communities. Since 1992, the program has distributed 140 awards in 47 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

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