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ISSUE 121 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/9/2008

Visiting speakers address pollution

By Miriam Samuelson
Staff Writer

Friday, May 9, 2008

St. Olaf honored its commitment to academic integrity and environmental stewardship Friday with the ninth annual Honors Day science symposium titled "Living in Our Toxic World." The day featured a convocation address, a poster session led by students and three plenary lectures on scientific perspectives of toxins in our world.

Professor of sociology Samiha Sidhom Peterson began the day with a convocation address during chapel on Friday. She emphasized the idea of a global community and of our responsibility within it.

"With the ongoing changes in our world, some scholars are of the opinion that we are indeed living in a post-modern world," Peterson said. "Such dramatic changes compel us to take stock of our concept of citizenship and consider how we fit in this changing world."

Peterson emphasized that global citizen is becoming an imperative for several reasons. "It is an imperative because our world has become increasingly interdependent and interconnected," she said. "We have become simultaneous witnesses of events and actions occurring in different parts of the world."

She cited the "global village" model, first proposed by surveyor and environmental activist David Copeland, in which global demographic statistics are represented in a village of 100 people. Peterson said she presented the model "with the hope that it would clarify our role in this village."

Several students were struck by Peterson's assertion that in such a village, "67 would be unable to read [&] and one would have a college education." Anya Galli '08 said that the statistic gave her perspective on the value of her own education.

"I knew that very few people in the world were college educated, but to hear it in that context was really powerful," she said. "It gave me perspective on the responsibility college-educated people have in light of our privileges and opportunities."

Other students appreciated the perspective of the address. "I think it's important not just to acknowledge achievement, but to look at its place in the larger context of society," Ben Swenson '08 said.

Later in the day, science students who had done research presented their posters in the Buntrock Commons Crossroads. For poster presenter Katie Block '08, the session was a chance for her to show her hard work to the St. Olaf community.

"It was really great to have my friends, family and professors be able to see a project I've been working on for over a year," she said. Block has presented her poster at several other conferences across the nation.

Three lectures were also held that afternoon. The first, titled "The Big Picture: Linking Pesticide Science and Health Effects," was presented by Dr. Warren Porter, professor of zoology, and professor of environmental toxicology and invited affiliate in engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In his talk, Porter portrayed the potential negative effects that pesticide use can have on human health. He said that from a whole-system perspective, what we do to our cellular structures will become reflected in the entire species.

"We are undermining these fundamental supporting structures that support this entire superstructure," he said. He proposed a change in market share as a solution to the problem, saying that we must invest in products, stocks and research that promote a human safety approach to pesticides.

Allison Macfarlane, who holds several professorships at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, gave a talk on "Four Things You Should Know about Nuclear Waste."

She emphasized the urgency of nuclear waste disposal. "The point is, we have to deal with this issue. We can't shove it off and deal with it later," she said.

Macfarlane asserted that high level nuclear waste will probably be inevitable and that we need to begin thinking about concrete solutions to the problem.

"The best solution, I think, for high-level nuclear waste, is a geologic repository," she said. "We need some kind of new plan." She ended with the question, "Can we solve this problem before we have a huge expansion of nuclear power?" With enough attention to the issue, she argued, we may be able to.

The third and final plenary address of the evening was given by Terry Collins, professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. Titled "Green Chemistry and the Future," Collins' talk centered on products developed by chemists that are environmentally safe.

At the end of his speech, Collins cited Stephen Covey's book "First Things First" to put the urgency and importance of green chemistry in perspective.

"As you think about the future, you can take any human activity and put one or two descriptors aside," Collins said. "Any human activity is either important or not important to you, the person doing the analysis. And it's either urgent or not urgent."

"In order to build a sustainable community," Collins said, "we need to get away from those activities that are not important but that are urgent."

"You go into your professional career and spend your lifetime performing for the system and making it happy, but not really doing what you really should be doing to be a truly authentic person," he said.

Instead, Collins urged people to think about the things that are not as urgent, but that hold such importance that they should get done anyway. In doing so, Collins said, our ideals of sustainability may become realities.

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