During the 1980s and early 1990s, scientists working in the Great Lakes watershed discovered reproductive problems and deformities in birds such as terns and cormorants, as well as in fish like lake trout and sturgeon, triggering new environmental and food-safety concerns.
Gerald Ankley, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, was at the forefront of helping identify the chemicals, such as PCBs and dioxin, that were the cause of these serious problems—laying the groundwork for improved regulation and the cleanup of these highly toxic substances.
Ankley’s pioneering work in those early years has evolved into new approaches for assessing chemical safety that are now the standard for the international scientific community. Today, manufacturers, environmental advocates and policymakers regularly use his research to identify potential harm from chemicals that could make their way into the environment.
“Everyday citizens benefit from his work, but have no idea about it,” said Deborah Swackhamer, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences. “He has been moving the ball down the field year after year, putting pieces into place like seeing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle come into focus.”
As an ecotoxicology specialist, one area that Ankley has studied involves chemicals that settle in sediment at the bottom of water and cause adverse effects on fish exposed to them. These chemicals number in the tens of thousands, and many are known to cause cancer, nerve damage and other serious health issues, but scientists don’t have the capacity to study each chemical to determine which pose threats to humans and the environment.
Through extensive laboratory and field work, Ankley has created novel methods to provide information about water, water-dwelling organisms and water-borne chemicals. These methods, and the data they produce, streamlines the process of distinguishing harmful chemicals from benign ones.
Ankley’s work also has introduced a new way of assessing human health risks. When thinking about cancer, said Tina Bahadori, director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, Ankley takes a step back from the minutiae to envision “what creates the opportunity for cancer develop.”
Ankley has constantly adapted his work to new areas of research. In the late 1990s, the focus shifted from sediment toxicology to endocrine disruption. He observed changes in the population of fish and frog species due to chemically inflated estrogen levels in these animals.
According to Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, a principal deputy assistant administrator for science at the EPA, Ankley’s research has helped the scientific community “bridge the relationship” between the environmental impact of endocrine disruption and the human health impact.
“I think the groundbreaking piece of his work is that it has helped us better understand and provide a more realistic understanding to our life in the real world,” Orme-Zavaleta said.
As Ankley has advanced in his career, he has given back to the scientific community, and especially to young and aspiring scientists. While he’s authored close to 500 scientific papers, Ankley keeps his mentees grounded in the real-life impact of their work.
“You publish a paper, and then what do you do with it—what impact does it make? He teaches people to start with that perspective,” Bahadori said. “He believes that if you come at problems this way, that’s where creativity comes. That’s where innovation comes.”
Ankley’s latest research, using a novel scientific framework known as the adverse outcome pathway, gives scientists the tools to predict the effects of environmental toxins with far greater scope and accuracy than was ever possible.
According to Swackhamer, the paradigm Ankley developed is “novel, innovative and the foundation of 21st-century risk and regulation assessment.”
Yet for all the impact of Ankley’s work, he remains a tireless scientist who has always valued public service over personal glory.
“He has that elite scientific knowledge and understanding, but there’s no ambiguity in his commitment,” Bahadori said. “His job, his passion, is to do the work that makes this country and this planet a safer place to live. That’s been his lifetime commitment and it’s been unwavering.”