Superfund Research Program
One of the Superfund Research Program's (SRP's) strengths is its focus on interdisciplinary work and the dissemination of research findings to as wide an audience as possible. While some scholars reinforce stereotypes of professors burying themselves deep within the ivory tower, SRP investigators know that their work plays a vital role in advancing environmental science and protecting the public from hazardous substances.
To that end, the Columbia University SRP has hosted a seminar series for over a decade. Since the Columbia SRP focuses on both the biomedical and geoscientific aspects of arsenic and manganese, most of the sessions present a talk on each area, while occasionally offering a related policy or social-science presentation. The results have been very positive.
At times, having audience members from both the biomedical and earth sciences can prove challenging. Presenters must address complex topics in a manner that provides sufficient explanation to those outside of their field while simultaneously advancing the knowledge of experts within the field. However, despite this challenge—or, perhaps, because of it—participants have learned about other disciplines' terminologies, methodologies, and contributions to arsenic and manganese research.
Arguably, the less formal aspects of the series have reaped the most benefits. Professors, postdoctoral fellows, and students have opportunities to ask presenters in-depth questions about new and exciting research (often prior to publication). The networking opportunities of the series also have allowed scientists working on different aspects of the same issue—whose paths may not have crossed in the past—to collaborate with each other on research and translational projects. In addition, students and postdoctoral fellows receive exposure to different research agendas and career paths, which can open up new options heretofore unconsidered.
Fostering Effective Communication
For the Columbia SRP, the series allows professors, postdoctoral fellows, and students to present and receive comments on their research before presenting it in a more formal setting or submitting it for publication. Presenters can receive feedback at every stage: initial design and planning, implementation, preliminary findings, conclusions, and next steps. Graduate students, in particular, may find this opportunity most helpful, as they learn how to anticipate tough questions from colleagues, navigate the intricacies of academic publishing, and build their reputations.
Reaching the World
The Columbia SRP is committed to making its work available to as wide an audience as possible. The series is open to the general public, and series organizers maintain an active mailing list with over 1,500 subscribers, including:
Faculty and students affiliated with Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory;
Professors and students from other New York-area universities, as well as academics from around the world who have indicated an interest in arsenic and/or manganese;
Officials from Rockland County, the New York and New Jersey state governments, and federal agencies (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency); and
Non-profit organizations at various levels: local (United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park), national (Clean Water Action), and international (Arsenic-Crisis Group).
While many cannot attend in person, the series announcements include presenters' email addresses, so those far away can still write for more information.
The Columbia SRP seminar series has maintained an impressive run, exposing participants to new research, breaking down disciplinary barriers, and reaching a diverse audience committed to decreasing human exposure to arsenic and manganese. Its efforts demonstrate that when it comes to the vital work of the Superfund Research Program, one should always opt for greater distribution, cooperation, and translation.