Flint Water Crisis in the Round

This past Monday night in Maas Auditorium, 13 bottles of water sat on a long table, each provided for one of the 13 people preparing to speak on an interdisciplinary panel about the Flint water crisis. One container of water, though, was not being consumed, nor would it be. Displayed at the center of the dais, a mason jar filled with water from Flint, Michigan, looking as benign and similar as the water in the other 13 bottles, was about to be examined from political, sociological, psychological, historical, scientific, artistic, ethical, and personal perspectives. Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

IMG_2537Organized and implemented by Dr. Julie Kipp’s women’s and gender studies keystone class, the event gave an opportunity for a large audience to consider what has happened in Flint as well as providing a challenge for all to get involved and do something appropriate within their discipline or interest. The panel, made up of one student, 11 professors, and one president, discussed the very tragic, sometimes complex, and always upsetting issues revolving around the high levels of lead in Flint water and those who drank that water for over a year. Delivering their expertise from their various points of view within a five-minute time limit each, the panel continued to cast light upon light upon light onto a problem that has fallen out of the nation’s glare… for the time being anyway. This communal time of reflection also gave hope for understanding next steps in Flint.

“When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

Katlyn Koegel, far left, speaks as part of the 13-member Flint Water Crisis panel.

Speaking from personal experience, sophomore Katlyn Koegel, a Flint native, shared several stories about people she knows from home who are struggling and afraid—a small, thirsty boy who asked for bottled water from her last summer, a woman who may lose her business due negative media attention that has driven customers away, and a pastor who paid a $900 bill for water he was not even using. “What has been most heartbreaking for me is this dichotomy between breaking news and broken structures,” said Koegel. “A lot of facts and individual stories have gone down a chasm between the two.”

Historically speaking, Dr. Fred Johnson, declared that Flint has its proud roots in Native American origins and the founding of a General Motors plant there in 1908. “And many of you may know, it was the site of the 1936-37 GM sit-down strike which basically brought the UAW (United Auto Workers) to prominence, making it a major instrument in the labor movement.” Now, the city’s heritage is  being viewed only through a microscope created by this recent history.

“All politics are local.”

Politically speaking, Dr. Annie Dandavati, reminded the audience that “it’s important for all of us to be educated voters. Even though we sometimes feel that our voices are falling on deaf ears, it’s important to know about issues no matter where they originate—in the state capitol, nationally or globally. All politics are local.”

Sociologically speaking, Dr. Aaron Franken and Dr. Debra Swanson showed that race and socio-economic status are key to making sense of what is happening in Flint. “When looking at kids in Flint, here’s some points that are important and highlight social processes for health: One, if socio-economic status is linked to health, and two, decreased educational attainment is a key link to lower socio-economic status, and three, lead poisoning manifests itself in behavioral changes and in cognitive ability changes and thus a link to decreased educational attainment, and, four, sizable portions of residents (in Flint) don’t leave the area – so residential non-migration – then we’re going to have a potential geographic health issue with a very long memory in Flint,” said Franzen.

“This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention.”

In 2013, the median household income in Flint was about half of that than in the rest of the state. The state median income is $43,000; in Flint it is about $23,000. Approximately 22% have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Forty-one percent of those living in Flint are below the poverty line, 56% of the population is black, and 75% of the households are single-parent homes. “This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention,” says Swanson. And yet those women have organized protests at the state capitol in Lansing as well as a movement with Lead Safe America Foundation, bringing attention to the crisis on Twitter with over three million tweets in two hours on February 4, using the hashtag, #StandWithFlint.

Psychologically speaking, Dr. Carrie Bredow offered one good news/bad news scenario: “We know that certain things can ameliorate some of the effects of lead poisoning (such as behavioral and cognitive disorders) though it’s not reversible. But based on the research, through things like good nutrition, having high-quality early childhood education and intervention, and consistent medical care, the level of its effects can be influenced. But these are the same things that children in Flint don’t have access to. So this is something that needs to be poured into in terms of how we stop this from affecting people in Flint inter-generationally.”

Scientifically speaking, Dr. Joanne Stewart and Dr. Graham Peaslee explained how lead got into the Flint water supply in the first place. “When they switched from (using) Lake Huron water to Flint River water (to save the city money), they had no corrosion plan in place (to keep the pipes from leeching lead into the water). That was one of the real shocking things that happened,” said Stewart. “It depends on which house you’re in (when looking at lead levels),” added Peaslee. “Some people have PVC pipes and no lead, others have lead and more lead in their pipes. It depends house to house what the effect was.”

“It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Morally speaking, Dr. Heidi Giannini enlightened with this: “One thing I think the Flint water crisis illustrates and what our response to it should bear in mind is that it is very hard to be good. However, that is no excuse for failing. The crisis in Flint illustrates at least one way it is hard to be good: we form bad habits (like laziness or self-interest) because most of the time they seem like they are not that big of a deal. When we foster these ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad habits, we foster the opportunity for great evil. We like to think that there is extraordinary vice underlying the horrible moral wrongs of what happened in Flint. It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Dr. Charles Green addressed environmental racism, citing evidence that shows more middle-class black families live in polluted areas than poor white families do. “Let me be clear: race is a real factor here… Black kids are three times more likely than white kids to have asthma (due to living in areas with poor air quality) and four times more likely to die from it. The environmental problems that we have addressed in this country over the last 30-40 years have largely benefitting the white population, and the environmental problems we have not addressed have largely impacted people of color.”

“We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.”

From an artistic standpoint, Rob Kenagy and Dr. Katherine Sullivan revealed how art and activism is giving people a news lens through which to view Flint. “The slam poetry coming out of Flint is hot…It’s important to remember that that art is made by real people,” said Kenagy, “and it’s just not something you can click past. There is a real voice behind it. We as readers have a responsibility (to hear it and see it), especially those of us from privileged spaces. We have to actually accept the trauma and invite it into our lives. We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.” Poetry and art is yet another way to do just that.

Finally, President John Knapp summed up the event this way: “Big problems don’t lend themselves to simple, small solutions. What I’ve really appreciated about this evening as I’ve listened to my colleagues here is that we’ve not only examined this problem from the perspective of art, philosophy, poetry, but also sociology, history, and political science. We’ve talked about biological and medical concerns; we’ve talked about psychological matters and even got into chemistry. Every one of those is important, and more, to really understand the nature of the problem. And what I’ve described is what we are about in the liberal arts at Hope. When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

Breaks Away: Graham Peaslee

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering restoration and adventure both, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

On a scale of sedentary to prolific, the yearlong break away of Dr. Graham Peaslee, the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science, can be best described as super-productive. If there was such a thing as barometric sabbatical pressure, Dr. Peaslee crushed it.

To wit:

  • He gave talks at 27 venues in nine U.S. states and Australia;
  • He crossed the Pacific Ocean four times in July alone, and his watch hasn’t been the same since;
  • He wrote three successful grant proposals to the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Australian government, collaborated on Hope’s successful Dow Foundation proposal, and has two more proposals still pending to the Department of Defense and the NSF;
  • He wrote three other grant proposals but received “thanks-but-no-thanks” replies;
  • He published five peer-reviewed papers during the year and submitted three more after classes started this fall; and,
  • He registered a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Dr. Graham Peaslee, Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science

One last thing, but I’ll wait while you catch your breath…..

  • Dr. Peaslee co-founded a new company— along with Hope colleague, Dr. Peter Boumgarden, assistant professor of economics, and Hope alum, Evelyn Ritter ’15, a mechanical engineer — called University Market Partners (UMP) Analytical that tests for the presence of perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) in consumer products. PFASs — human-made chemicals found in flame retardant, stain- and water-resistant materials such as carpet, furniture fabrics, textiles and outdoor clothing, cosmetics, fire-fighting foam and even the liner of microwave popcorn bags — are concerning for their long environmental lifetimes, bioaccumulation and toxicity, and thus their impact on human and animal life. Another NSF grant got UMP launched, and NSF featured UMP’s work on its website.


“Sabbatical is a time to see where you are and where you want to go,” says Dr. Peaslee, who obviously went to a lot of places in mileage and mind. “It’s a time to put your efforts into your passions.”

“When I stop to think about it, it really makes me angry. There are over 500 (PFASs) and only two have been voluntarily removed from the U.S. market,” he says firmly. “No one eats microwave popcorn in my household anymore.”

Since his passions are the environment and chemistry combined, UMP’s creation perfectly explains where Dr. Peaslee’s newest trek is going. His road is mapped by analytic and nuclear chemistry; his destination is science policy as much as science itself. Those microwave popcorn bags with PFASs? Denmark recently removed them from their grocery store shelves. Understandably, Dr. Peaslee would like to see PFASs removed from all food packaging materials in the U.S.

“When I stop to think out it, it really makes me angry. There are over 500 (PFASs) and only two have been voluntarily removed from the U.S. market,” he says firmly. “No one eats microwave popcorn in my household anymore.”

Hope senior David Lunderberg, right, and Evelyn Ritter, a UMP Analytical co-founder, at work in Dr. Peaslee’s lab.

Most Saturdays — and any other day of the week, really — Dr. Peaslee can be found with a team of students conducting PFAS testing using the Pelletron particle accelerator, a piece of pricey equipment he acquired with an NSF grant in 2004, in his lab on Hope’s campus. The company’s workers take an existing yet refined nuclear process that Dr. Peaslee and Dr. Paul DeYoung, the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics, discovered about a year ago and tests for PFASs in minutes when once the testing required days. While paying back colleges and universities like Hope for their accelerator’s use, and giving Hope students experience and employment to boot, UMP is just as importantly able to provide a low-cost PFAS screening method for non-profit groups such as The National Resource Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Environmental Working Group. It’s a win-win-win for Hope, the environment and humans.

Of course, Dr. Peaslee’s priority remains teaching and researching at Hope while he runs UMP with his partners. Follow him on Twitter @gfpeaslee. You’ll find his feed full of scientific engagement with students and colleagues, from watershed experiences to cyclotron experiments.

Would you expect anything else from a super-productive professor?

Dr. Graham Peaslee is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Hope College.

Lights, camera… faculty

KenBrownOnCameraHad you walked into Dr. Ken Brown’s lab early yesterday morning, you would have been witness to this scene: Dr. Brown on camera, enthusiastically sharing his experience as an A. Paul Schaap Research Fellow.

It is always great to hear our faculty express such passion for their work (whether they’re on camera or not!). Every day, that work includes scholarly engagement and one-on-one collaborative research with students.

Recently featured on Hope’s homepage was a story about Dr. Brown, professor of chemistry. After reading it, you’ll understand the depth of collaborative interaction between Hope faculty and their students. You’ll also understand why, to Dr. Brown, it was important that “he never had to choose between research and teaching.”

In the story, Dr. Brown reflects on the instruments in his lab. “The equipment that we have is very impressive, even when you compare it to major research institutions,” he says. “But when you consider small schools like Hope, the amount of research that goes on and the equipment that we have far exceeds other schools, which makes student hands-on training even more feasible.”

As critical as they are to scholarship, sophisticated lab instruments do not singularly define Hope College as a community of scholars. And, well-equipped academic facilities alone have not made Hope a recognized leader in undergraduate research. At the heart of our students’ academic experience are the people — including dedicated professors like Dr. Brown.

Carbon Molecules and Pink Flamingos

Dr. Jeff Johnson is an award-winning Hope College chemist with a complex sounding research focus — carbon-carbon single bond activation and the development of transition metal catalyzed methodologies.

Dr. Jeff Johnson, Associate Professor of Chemistry and 2015 Dreyfus Scholar-Teacher Award Winner

Yet, here is the simplest fact of the matter: Dr. Johnson’s research and teaching agenda— for which he is a winner of the prestigious 2015 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award — is creative, ambitious and elementally fun too.

You see, in Dr. Johnson’s laboratory, carbon-containing molecules AND an inflatable pink flamingo can effortlessly cohabitate without pretense or hesitation. Both are indicators of a researcher and teacher serious about organic molecular demolition and Hope student education.

“Oh, the flamingo is a holdover from Aloha Day a couple years ago,” Dr. Johnson confides, standing next to his lab’s experimental mascot. “Each summer I encourage the students to have a theme week, and they can decorate their desk area and dress up for the themes as well. There is still serious chemistry going on, of course, but this gives them a chance to have some fun, too.”

Welcome to Dr. Johnson's office.
Welcome to Dr. Johnson’s office.

Mind you, it’s not that an intensive, 10-week, 50-hour-per-week summer research program isn’t fun in and of itself. Sometimes you just need a pink flamingo around to lighten the mood.

The hard, fun work in Dr. Johnson’s lab centers around the development of new methods of taking a variety of larger, organic molecules and chopping them down. This is done with the potential of testing those lopped-off parts for biological activity. It’s a very difficult and intricate process that could eventually have application in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical worlds, for instance.

“Stable bonds are why you and I exist, right? That’s why we don’t turn into blobs. So what we are trying to do is find ways that we can break these stable bonds. That’s the carbon-carbon activation part… What our method has the promise of doing is taking a complex structure and chopping off little parts of it that then can be tested (for future application).”

More than 50 students have come alongside Dr. Johnson in his lab since he arrived at Hope in 2007, with (another) celebrated Dreyfus award in tow (for faculty start-up). Since then he’s accumulated more than $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the American Chemical Society, and of course, the Dreyfus Foundation. A number of those 50 students have advanced onto present their findings at national conferences or co-authored articles in professional journals as well.

“We have future physicians, researchers, teachers and even business managers working right alongside each other. I’ll take anyone who is interested in the research and find a spot for them.” — Dr. Jeff Johnson

And in a show of both fondness and pride, Dr. Johnson displays eight years’ worth of Hope student-researchers’ group photos in his office, very near those of his three young children, a remembrance of the bonds made in relationships if not in carbon.

“It can be a madhouse in here with 12 students working together,” he says. “But it’s great because I have an open-door policy. We have future physicians, researchers, teachers and even business managers working right alongside each other. I’ll take anyone who is interested in the research and find a spot for them.” (But they do at least have to have taken General Chemistry, though most have completed Organic Chemistry as well.)

Dr. Johnson’s “Propose a Project” board

While Dr. Johnson guides his students’ researching process, he gives them room to lead, too. His student-researchers can “propose a project” and hash it out on a dedicated whiteboard. Like his use of theme week, Dr. Johnson puts an emphasis on student creativity and engagement to enhance excitement and dedication. The former musician in him (he played the trumpet and tuba through college) can’t help but give students the chance to appreciate the sound of carbon molecules falling to pieces.

“I want my students to get an appreciation of the process (of research),” says Dr. Johnson, who also regularly teaches courses in organic and inorganic chemistry. “In classroom labs, our experiments are designed to work. But as soon as you get into research, it doesn’t work. Well, most of the time it doesn’t work. And it’s the not working that teaches students just as much as the things that do work. Learning how to take ‘failure’ and turn around and design a new experiment and gain from that — that is my overarching priority and philosophy in research education.”

That and it’s okay to have a pink flamingo, too.

Dr. Jeff Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at Hope College.