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Distinguished New Faculty Join YSPH’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences

October 01, 2021
by Matt Kristoffersen

The Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health welcomes four new faculty members to its growing team of interdisciplinary educators.

They include an environmental expert with Microsoft, an attorney whose legal expertise in the area of environmental law was featured in the 2019 film “Dark Waters,” an acclaimed researcher who led the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and a prominent environmental toxicologist.

Linda S. Birnbaum, Ph.D., Lucas Joppa, Ph.D., and Jason C. White, Ph.D., have joined the department as adjunct professors, while Robert Bilott, J.D., joined as a lecturer. Together, they will add significant layers of expertise, experience and perspective to a department that has already made important contributions to global health – from understanding raw wastewater’s predictive value for COVID-19 outbreaks to assessing the climate crisis and its impact on individuals living in the Caribbean.

And to Vasilis Vasiliou, Ph.D., chair of Environmental Health Sciences, the new additions will also provide current and future students with an opportunity to learn from some of the most prominent leaders in their respective fields. The experience they will bring to the department, he said, is invaluable.

“These are some major names,” Vasiliou said. “I think [these appointments] expand the capabilities for the Department of Environmental Health Sciences to become one of the top-ranking departments in the country – and that, of course, will reflect on the Yale School of Public Health.”

Linda S. Birnbaum: Pioneering Toxicology Research

Birnbaum joins the department after previously serving as the leader of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program for more than 10 years. In those roles, she pushed the organizations to better conceptualize the role of climate change on global health. Birnbaum was also responsible for helping to develop a new field of public health study, called exposomics, which seeks to understand the manner in which lifetime exposure to various compounds can impact health outcomes.

An avid researcher, she has authored more than 700 peer-reviewed papers. Her scientific breakthroughs have also been widely recognized: In 2010, Birnbaum was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, one of the field’s highest honors. She holds honorary doctorates from both United States and international universities, and continues to conduct research, mentor, and lecture widely.

“She would be a very big help, not only for our faculty, but also for our students,” Vasiliou said. “She participates with me in community engagement and events – a huge advantage for the school to have her name as a professor. It’s amazing that we have her.”

Lucas Joppa: Leader of Microsoft’s Sustainability Efforts

Joppa works as Microsoft’s first Chief Environmental Officer. There, he leads the development and execution of the company’s sustainability strategy across its worldwide business – all while continuing to actively engage in environmental research and serve on the boards of leading scientific organizations. In fact, according to Clarivate’s latest annual report, Joppa stands as one of the world’s most highly cited researchers.

As an adjunct faculty member, Joppa will build upon his prior experience working with the Yale School of Public Health. Last November, he spent an hour speaking to an online gathering of YSPH students and faculty members about machine learning’s potential to track diseases.

Joppa’s talent for finding new opportunities for YSPH students became clear when he helped to connect a student who attended his virtual talk with others in his field.

“That’s one of the things where we should absolutely be as good as possible … making those connections between like-minded researchers,” Joppa said.

Already, Joppa has deepened his commitment to the department by serving as a reader for a recent thesis and by co-authoring a paper with M.P.H. students, Vasiliou said. Joppa’s expertise will be valuable to future students, too, he explained.

These are some major names.

Vasilis Vasiliou

“He’s an amazing guy and an amazing character,” Vasiliou added. “I cannot tell you how excited I am about this.”

Jason White: Prominent Environmental Toxicologist

In addition to his new appointment to the Department of Environmental Health, White is the director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, the oldest agricultural experiment station in the country. In that role, he manages a $12 million annual budget and oversees 100 scientific staff, all in an effort to continue “Putting Science to Work for Society.”

His experience has also allowed him to take on editor positions at prominent research publications. White is managing editor for the International Journal of Phytoremediation, an associate editor for NanoImpact, on the editorial board of Environmental Pollution, and on the editorial advisory boards of Environmental Science & Technology and Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

White is an elected member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, and is a Commissioned Official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He also has a research program that focuses on food safety and security, with specific interests in the use of nanoscale materials to increase food production

“Jason White is one of the most prominent environmental toxicologists in the United States,” Vasiliou said. “We’re bringing more toxicology expertise to the department and also building a collaboration with state agencies.”

Robert Bilott: Inspired Popular Movie

Bilott brings unprecedented legal expertise to the Department of Environmental Health. As a partner at the law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, LLP, he has handled and led some of the most novel and complex cases in the country involving damage from exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, including the first individual, class action, mass tort and multi-district litigation proceedings involving PFAS.

He has recovered more than $1 billion for clients impacted by the chemicals, and in 2017, he received the international “Right Livelihood Award,” also known as the “alternative Nobel Prize,” for his decades of work on PFAS. He currently serves on the boards of Less Cancer and Green Umbrella.

Bilott’s environmental legal battles were the inspiration for the 2019 motion picture Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo as Rob. His story is also chronicled in his recent book, Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-Year Battle Against DuPont, and featured in the documentary The Devil We Know.

Bilott is a fellow in the Right Livelihood College, an Honorary Professor at the National University of Cordoba in Argentina, and received an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from New College of Florida.

“I would say [Bilott] is my hero … this is a great opportunity,” Vasiliou said.

Bilott will also bring crucial experience with the regulatory aspects of environmental health policy to the department, he explained.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on October 01, 2021