National Award Honors UB Chemist Whose Classes Help Communities Resolve Environmental Problems

Release Date: March 10, 2003


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When a community suspects an environmental hazard, the battle lines are drawn almost instantly: residents are on one side with lots of questions but little if any data, while officials, local industry and their scientists are on the other, armed with plenty of data.

This week, a University at Buffalo chemistry professor is being honored with a national award for stepping into that crossfire in neighborhoods throughout Western New York, providing critical scientific data to communities for free, while using such confrontations as a backdrop against which he teaches undergraduates about politics, society and analytical chemistry.

On March 14, at the opening plenary of the American Association for Higher Education conference, the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE) will award Joseph A. Gardella, Ph.D., UB professor of chemistry and associate dean for external affairs in UB's College of Arts and Sciences, with its 2003 Ernest A. Lynton Award for Faculty Professional Service and Academic Outreach.

"Faculty in the hard sciences are not often encouraged to think about the social consequences of their work," said Cathy Burack, associate director of NERCHE. "In schools of education or social work, for example, there's a natural link with the community through fieldwork, but there isn't one in the hard sciences.

"What's special about Dr. Gardella is that he's researching, publishing and working with students, but he's also adding this extra element, bringing his expertise right into the community. It's really important that we recognize people who do this when we think about how colleges and universities should relate to the communities around them."

Since 1996, Gardella has been taking students in his "Analytical Chemistry of Pollutants" Chemistry 470 course into neighborhoods in Western New York, where citizen groups are dealing with environmental issues typical of cities once a part of the so-called Rust Belt.

The students work with residents, following them into their basements, backyards and playgrounds to gather scientific data, using the same analytical chemistry techniques as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies.

But while other college courses have done soil, water and air sampling in their communities, Chemistry 470 was, from the outset, designed to go far beyond detecting parts per billion of certain chemicals.

"To teach students about the science of pollution we need to give them not just the skills they'll need to do sampling and testing, but also an understanding of how important those data are to a community," said Gardella. "My students do the scientific work, knowing that they're going to have to tell the residents in person, in plain English, what the data say about the chemicals in their backyard garden or the local park where their kids play everyday."

The idea for the course developed in the mid-1990s. As the department's most prominent environmental chemist, Gardella was receiving requests from local groups asking for information about environmental issues in their neighborhoods. He increasingly was frustrated that in some cases there was no way for him to address some of the problems sufficiently.

Then one day in 1995, he was taking members of the Buffalo City School Board on a tour of UB's then-new chemistry building.

Clearly impressed with the state-of-the-art facility, they asked Gardella how the community could somehow gain access to it.

"That's when I put two and two together and realized that through my course and later, with support from UB's cross-disciplinary Environment and Society Institute, we could put UB's expertise to work by addressing environmental issues in the community," he said.

"There are plenty of environmental institutes and courses out there, but the notion of one truly focused on bringing all of the strengths of UB's interdisciplinary research to community action -- we think that's unique," said Gardella.

He noted that as a research university, UB has been especially supportive of this kind of public service learning, as it's called, where university research is harnessed to resolve a community problem. For example, UB's Environment and Society Institute, which Gardella helped found, was formed to support interdisciplinary, public-service projects dealing with the environment in Western New York.

So far, Gardella and his students have assisted citizens in investigating how their neighborhoods have been impacted by local industry, by plants that no longer operate, and by the legacies of Buffalo's former steel industry sites. The course teaches students how to help residents figure out what the scientific data mean, who the players are and how to find a way for residents to participate meaningfully in the process so that they are satisfied with the outcome.

It is popular not only with chemistry students, but also with those majoring in chemical and environmental engineering, geology and the social sciences.

And the continued success Chemistry 470 has had in getting all parties to the table on specific environmental issues is having a major impact on local communities.

At public meetings, the presence of Gardella and his students, as well as the ability of residents to discuss the data in a meaningful way, often has turned adversaries into partners, he said.

"We have learned to mutually create agendas," Gardella explained.

From the start, he and the students solicit input from residents, asking them how they want to review the data and have it presented.

Gardella noted that based on what he has witnessed at public meetings, it is not surprising that residents sometimes feel alienated from the process.

"When professional consultants come in to a community to gather data, the residents often feel like they come in saying 'OK, we're the experts, we're going to do this according to our rules,' but students don't present themselves as experts," he noted. "The community welcomes them as co-workers."

Gardella added that when the residents, some of whom didn't go to college, get involved with the UB students, they feel good about it.

"They tell me with pride, 'I'm helping a college student learn.' At the same time, I've heard them say over and over, 'You know if the only thing that comes out of this is that these students learn about the process, then that will be well worth it.'"

But that's not all that has come out of Chemistry 470. From 1997-99, including summers, students in Gardella's class worked with the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, where residents were concerned about emissions and odors from the Buffalo Color Corp., which previously had not enjoyed good relations with residents.

After extensive meetings were held with local residents and with company officials, Gardella and his student-chemists distributed to residents sensors to detect air contaminants along with instructions about when and how to wear them. When the badges were returned to students and analyzed, none of the targeted contaminants were detected.

"The residents knew they had not been exposed because they collected the data themselves," Gardella said. "The upshot is that by working with both the company and with residents, we helped build a bridge between people in the community and the company. People's attitudes about the company have changed."

To this day, Gardella still is deeply involved in the environmental issues in this neighborhood and in others, having established valuable, long-term relationships with residents' groups.

In Hickory Woods, a suburban-style subdivision in Buffalo constructed on an old LTV Steel site, Gardella's students have sampled the air, water and soil there and shared the data with residents, public officials and government agency staff at public meetings that sometimes turned volatile.

Gardella and his students have forged successful collaborations with the New York State departments of health and environmental conservation, mapping contaminant "hot spots" in Hickory Woods, using geographic information systems (GIS) techniques. Residents there now are using the maps to propose their own remediation plan for the neighborhood. "The most gratifying thing has been for residents to say to us, 'You stood up for us and your voices have legitimized ours,'" he said.

Currently, Gardella's students are completing field studies in the Bellevue neighborhood of Cheektowaga, a Buffalo suburb, where residents want to know if the incidence of cancer, autoimmune and other diseases may be related to nearby industry and several landfills.

"When we start working with a new group, we tell them: 'We will work together with you on this and if the technical data support your allegations, we will say that publicly,'" said Gardella.

In the end, he said, his only agenda is to gather data to find out what's truly happening.

"I get accused sometimes of being an advocate," he said, "but I'm only an advocate for a community's right to know."

Media Contact Information

Ellen Goldbaum
News Content Manager
Tel: 716-645-4605
Twitter: @UBmednews