AAAS Honors Pfiesteria Researcher With 1998 Scientific Freedom And Responsibility Award

December 10, 1997

December 10, 1997--Washington, D.C.--Despite receiving anonymous death threats and being poisoned by the very microorganism that she was studying, JoAnn Burkholder refused to abandon what she considered her scientific duty. For her unflagging dedication in focusing public attention on how U.S. rivers and fish could be devastated by a specific aquatic microbe, Pfiesteria piscicida, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has bestowed on Burkholder its 1998 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award.

Burkholder, an associate professor of Aquatic Ecology and Marine Sciences in the Department of Botany at North Carolina State University, will be honored at a ceremony in Philadelphia, PA, on Monday, February 16, at the 1998 AAAS Annual Meeting. Burkholder will also address the meeting at a session called "Manipulation of Science by Vested Interests: Money and Power Versus Public Health" on Saturday, February 14.

Burkholder identified and named Pfiesteria (pronounced fee-STEER-e-ah) upon investigating the mystery of why her colleague's laboratory research fish kept dying. By 1991, she linked the organism to native North Carolina waters and the deaths of millions of fish in North Carolina. The microbe was most recently connected to a massive fish kill in Maryland's Pocomoke River, and it has raised concerns about possible human health implications.

The panel convened by AAAS to select the recipient of the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award acknowledged Burkholder's courage to stand by her findings and warn of the deteriorating quality of our fragile coastal environment, even in the face of death threats and attempts to discredit her work. The panel also encouraged her to pursue the solid research that is still needed to address the problems she has brought to the attention of her scientific colleagues and the public, reporting that the knowledge gained will contribute to a useful and informed public dialogue on the competing human activities in riparian environments.

"Dr. Burkholder's perseverance and intellectual courage are responsible for the intensive research effort now under way to understand better the extent of Pfiesteria's role in degrading our coastal environment and what that may mean to public health," says Richard S. Nicholson, AAAS Executive Officer. "Her efforts epitomize the need for researchers to pursue scientific truths and use their findings to engage in an informed public debate on issues that affect our health and welfare."

Although Burkholder's research is finally being recognized as both creative and credible, she had long endured challenges from her critics. Some denounced both her personal reputation and professional competency as she sought to link Pfiesteria to such pollutants as human and hog sewage and agricultural runoff. Her research put her at the center of one of today's most contentious debates involving science and public policy. Her outspokenness in voicing her opinions and sounding an alarm to potential dangers involving specific human activities along rivers resulted in her being sent several anonymous death threats.

In 1993, she and a co-worker became severely ill after breathing the toxic fumes rising out of their lab's fish tanks. She suffered from nausea, burning eyes, and memory loss, including difficulties in writing and even holding a conversation. She subsequently made a partial recovery; despite some lingering symptoms, she has remained a leader in studying the organism and its potential impacts on our environment.

In all, Burkholder has published 18 peer-reviewed scientific studies on Pfiesteria, which some refer to as the "cell from hell." Earlier this year, she served as a lead researcher on a project involving North Carolina State University, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Marine Biotoxin Center at the National Marine Fisheries Service. This investigation isolated the toxic component of Pfiesteria, which will make it possible for scientists to identify the poison's chemical structure and develop accurate ways to detect it in humans and fish. The study also found that the toxin from Pfiesteria is faster acting than any other similar poison: when fish are exposed to the purified form, they become fatally affected in just two to three seconds, and they die within three minutes.

Burkholder received her bachelor's in zoology from Iowa State University in 1975 and her master's in aquatic biology from the University of Rhode Island in 1981. For her doctorate, she attended Michigan State University, earning her Ph.D. in botanical limnology--the study of fresh waters--in 1986. Earlier this year, she received a prestigious Pew Fellowship in Conservation and the Environment in recognition of her research and educational outreach efforts. Those activities have included addressing not only her scientific colleagues and policy-makers, but also elementary school students.

The Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award is one of eight awards that AAAS gives during its annual meeting to honor scientists and engineers for their achievements. Established in 1980, the award is used to honor those who have fostered scientific freedom and responsibility, either by acting to protect the public; by participating responsibly in public debates to focus attention on societal impacts of science and technology; or by establishing precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award consists of a plaque and $2,500.

Founded in 1848, AAAS is the world's largest federation of scientists and has more than 144,000 individual members. The Association publishes the weekly, peer-reviewed journal Science and administers EurekAlert!, the online news service featuring the latest discoveries in science, medicine, and technology.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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