NIEHS grantee Karletta Chief, Ph.D., caught the attention of producers of Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, a collection of short films sponsored by Science Friday and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The film on Chief, “Breakthrough: Bitter Water,” is the last of the six films in the series. Released in January, it tells the story of her family roots and the goals of her scientific research.
Chief, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, is a hydrologist at the University of Arizona, where she works with two NIEHS-funded centers. She directs the Community Engagement Core of the Superfund Research Program, is an advisory board member of the Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research (CIEHR), and a pilot researcher with Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center.
The film was made by Emily Driscoll, a science writer and documentary filmmaker, and Luke Groskin, a producer with Science Friday.
Breakthrough: Bitter Water
Gold King Mine spill
Along with Paloma Beamer, Ph.D., Chief co-leads a CIEHR project to determine the impacts on the Navajo people by the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill. Her team studies the short-term exposure and risk perceptions in three Navajo Nation communities affected by the spill — Shiprock and Upper Fruitland in New Mexico, and Aneth in Utah.
An important part of the project involves reporting research findings at community teach-ins. Chief, who typically makes presentations to residents in the Navajo language, and her team translate the scientific findings into information relevant to the farmers, ranchers, and families who are affected.
In the team’s latest update, researchers reported early findings on lead, arsenic, and manganese levels in water, sediment, agricultural and residential soil, and house dust, as well as in blood and urine samples collected by Navajo community health workers. To date, most of the analyses show low or no levels of concern. However, spikes occur in the river during high-flow snow runoff events.
NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Symma Finn, Ph.D., spoke about the importance of the work Chief is doing. “Karletta’s research has a vital connection to the communities she is involved in,” Finn said. “Her work serves the people who live there at the same time as it advances the science. For example, with intimate knowledge of lifestyles and environmental conditions, she was able to identify exposure pathways that others missed.”