The Trinity Reporter Winter 2004
  
When the rubber meets the road
Alison Draper, director of Trinity’s
Interdisciplinary Science Center



by Christine Palm
photographs: Nick Lacy
 

Alison DraperVery few of us see the details and the big picture with equal clarity. But Dr. Alison J. Draper, director of Trinity’s Center for Interdisciplinary Science, has been doing just that for as long as she can remember. At the age when most young women are concerned with getting their first driver’s license, Draper was more concerned with microscopic particles of rubber flying off the car’s tires. Today, as a respected toxicologist and environmental chemist, she studies how these airborne particles get into the nation’s waterways and potentially wreak havoc on the environment—and, she suspects, on our health.

“I initially studied diesel exhaust as an undergraduate, but found tires more interesting,” Draper explains. “Chemically speaking, tire rubber is very complex and varies considerably from brand to brand. And although we’ve only done preliminary studies, I’m sure there are negative effects on a host of aquatic organisms. Green algae are the most sensitive, and since they are at the base of the food chain, other organisms may be affected. My ultimate goal is to determine the toxic compounds and suggest changes in the chemical formulation of vehicular tires. Already, new tires are being made without carbon black. Although these white or fluorescent colored tires were made with fashion in mind, by eliminating the carbon black, they have eliminated a number of carcinogenic compounds.”

Draper earned her B.A. from Clark University in 1992, her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas Medical Center in 1996, and did her postdoctoral training at the University of California at Davis (1996-99). She is the recipient of numerous awards and scholarships, including the 2002 National Science Teachers Association Award for Innovation in Science Teaching at the College Level. She has received grant support from the Henry B. Luce Foundation and a National Institute of Environmental Health Science postdoctoral fellowship, among others.

In her research, Draper has studied subjects ranging from in vitro tests to predict drug reactions to chemical exposure in the workplace. She has written numerous articles, including “The Effect of Benzothiazoles on Aquatic Organisms (Selanastrum capricornutum, Ceriodaphnia dubia and Daphnia magna),” which she and an undergraduate student presented at the 2002 annual meeting of the Hudson-Delaware Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Benzothiazoles are chemicals that are found almost exclusively in tires, which makes them good markers for the presence of rubber in the natural environment.

“It’s true—I love teaching”

It’s not surprising that someone with such varied scientific interests would be chosen to spearhead Trinity’s Interdisciplinary Science Program, which provides students with a broad understanding of science and with opportunities to conduct research early in their academic careers.

Alison Draper“I went to graduate school to study forensic toxicology, but in my third year I was required to teach a class and discovered that I just loved it,” Draper says. “It was then that a friend told me I’d be ‘wasting my life on dead people’ if I just concentrated on forensic laboratory work. I was too good in the classroom. And it’s true—I love teaching. I was in the tenure track as an assistant professor at Bucknell University and doing very well—things were going smashingly, in fact. But I loved looking at broader issues of education that went beyond my own classroom. So when the interdisciplinary science position came up at Trinity, I realized that I could teach, have a lab, and serve as an administrator, which is a combination that really appeals to me. It’s a great fit for me, because it allows me to work on something I care deeply about—how to educate students better in the sciences.”

At the same time, Draper is concerned about faculty members who, as scholars, often find they have too little time to conduct research they consider critical.

“Just as I am committed to attracting more science students, I am dedicated to supporting the teacher/scholar model by finding ways to help other faculty members strike that balance.”

One aspect of this is her dedication to the curricular review process that is currently under way at Trinity.

“Working with other members of the faculty on the curricular review is a nice challenge—it’s actually more fun than I anticipated.”

And despite the demands of a busy schedule of teaching, research, and administrative work, Draper does manage to find other ways to relax and have fun.

“I’ve always been a musician,” she says. “I play the trumpet and the piano, and I love to sing. I directed a chorus in college and knew I would always need a musical outlet in addition to science.

“One day, I decided that I’d open up a newspaper and try out for whatever musical endeavor my eyes landed on first. There was an audition coming up for a barbershop chorus, and I went for it!” Today, she sings in a 20-member group that recently won an international award from the Sweet Adelines—the “Nobel Prize” of the barbershop singers’ world.

For Alison Draper, working toward harmony seems to come naturally, whether it’s between the alto and bass parts, between humans and the environment, or among scholars of all ages and skill levels as they engage the challenging world of science.

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