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Lauren Richter

Lauren Richter

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Lauren Richter is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University and a member of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute. She is a research assistant on Dr. Phil Brown and Dr. Alissa Cordner’s NSF grant “Per- and Polyfluorinated Chemicals: The Social Discovery of a Class of Emerging Contaminants.” Prior to pursuing her Ph.D. she worked at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in California from 2009-2013, and taught courses on environmental justice at the University of San Francisco. She completed an M.A. in Sociology from Washington State University in 2008. She is on the board of directors of the Boston-based environmental justice organization Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE). In 2015 she received the graduate department’s “Outstanding Public and Applied Research Award,” and in 2017 she was selected as a Switzer Environmental Fellow. Her dissertation research examines scientific knowledge production and translation in the case of emerging per-and polyfluorinated compounds. She served on the student editorial board for the journal Social Problems, from 2016 to 2017.

What is your academic background and what are some of the factors that led you to come to Northeastern to pursue your PhD?

I majored in Sociology at Connecticut College, where I also pursued a Certificate in Conservation Biology and Environmental Studies. I completed a Master’s in Sociology at Washington State University. My master’s research tested the extent to which national patterns of environmental inequality found in urban areas followed similar spatial patterns in rural regions of the U.S. Using GIS-based maps and spatial statistics, I found that places with higher concentrations of Black, Latino, and blue-collar workers were significantly more likely than Whites to live in close proximity to hazardous waste sites.

After I completed my master’s, I worked at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) in Oakland, California for almost five years. CRPE is one of the nation’s largest environmental justice community organizing and legal assistance non-profit organizations, serving communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Our work centered on grassroots leadership development and supporting local strategies for reducing toxic exposures in disproportionately burdened communities. My work experience drives my interest in studying environmental contamination and human health effects.

I chose to pursue my PhD at Northeastern because of Professor Phil Brown and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute. I met Phil at the American Sociological Association conference in 2005 when I was an undergraduate student, and I kept track of his work for years. After working in rural California, I knew that I wanted to focus my research on the challenges communities face regarding environmental contamination. Professor Phil Brown has been a leader in this field for decades, and is committed to the success of the students he mentors. Additionally, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology has a strong focus on environmental sociology and a number of faculty with expertise in this area, including: Dr. Laura Senier, Dr. Sara Wylie, Dr. Sharon Harlan, Dr. Daniel Faber, and Dr. Len Albright.

You were recently awarded the very competitive and prestigious Switzer Fellowship. Can you provide a brief overview of this award? What does receiving this fellowship mean to you?

The Switzer Fellowship is a leadership grant that provides academic support to students in New England and California. The fellowship entails a science communication training in Washington, D.C., in addition to leadership development and career mentorship as a member of the Switzer Fellowship network. I am extremely grateful to receive this fellowship, and am glad to see the growing interest in social science in the environment field.

You were also recently awarded the National Science Foundation Dissertation Fellowship. Can you provide a brief overview of this award? What does receiving this fellowship mean to you?

The National Science Foundation Sociology program offers a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement (DDRI) grant. This award provides financial support for dissertation-related research expenses, enabling doctoral students to collect additional data, pay for transcription services, or travel to additional field sites, for example. It is an honor to receive this award, and the support will enable me to gather additional data and participate in a conference I otherwise would not have been able to attend.

What is your dissertation focused on?

My dissertation analyzes the social discovery of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). In production since the 1950s, this group of chemicals coat innumerable consumer products in addition to their use as industrial surfactants and agents in fire-fighting foam. Despite decades of use, the danger and scope of contamination were not known to the U.S. public, military, or regulatory agencies until the early 2000’s. I examine the confluence of unique actors, stakeholder groups, litigation, and scientific evidence necessary for the re-discovery of PFASs over six decades of mass production. Inherent to any discovery are questions surrounding the causes of prior ignorance. Therefore, in addition to identifying how scientific knowledge of the risks of PFASs have been produced, I trace the ways in which current regulatory frameworks produce scientific ignorance pertaining to the environmental fate and human toxicity of PFASs.

Can you describe your experience with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern? What advice can you offer to someone who is considering pursuing a PhD at Northeastern?

At Northeastern I’ve received a strong training in Sociology and have been fortunate to work as Professor Phil Brown and Professor Alissa Cordner’s (Whitman College) research assistant on their NSF grant examining the social discovery of per- and polyfluorinated compounds. This provided me with the opportunity to conduct seven months of fieldwork with a range of stakeholder groups across the country. As a research assistant, I have had the opportunity to train and supervise undergraduate research assistants and graduate student collaborators. In response to the accelerating discovery of PFAS contamination in water and soil across the globe, our PFAS research group has grown significantly within Northeastern. Our PFAS research project now includes graduate students in sociology, public health, and Post-Doctoral Scholars at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton. We continue to work with co-op students through the university’s six-month apprenticeship program. Additionally, our PFAS lab group is engaged in applied research with the Toxics Action Center and the Environmental Working Group. We are currently organizing a community focused national conference on PFASs here at Northeastern on June 14-15, 2017. Our conference features keynotes from Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and Ken Cook, executive director of the Environmental Working Group. Our work on this class of chemicals is feasible, in no small part, to the collaborative nature of this initiative.

I would advise students considering a PhD from Northeastern to connect directly with the faculty members they hope to work with, and talk to as many staff, faculty, and graduate students as possible.

Learn more about the PhD in Sociology program here.

Published On: June 1, 2017