Why Do I Need To Know All This Science?
By Dr. Harriet Burge, EMLab P&K's Director of Aerobiology
Many people ask whether it's important to know a lot of science in this industry. "It
doesn't help me in my day-to-day investigations," they say.
You can probably go for months doing routine investigations without having to apply new
scientific knowledge to your work. However, the day will come when you cannot solve a problem
without accessing the scientific literature and updating yourself on the latest information.
Unfortunately, scientists often present at meetings meant for working investigators and use so
many terms that field investigators haven't been taught resulting in a presentation that's
impossible to follow, or fail to connect the data they are presenting to the working investigator.
For example, I had to present a paper on environmental Mycobacterium species at the IAQA this
week. I was really concerned that my audience (composed mostly of people working in the
"trenches" in indoor air quality) would not see the connection with their work. Why
do you or anyone else care about Mycobacterium? It isn't a mold, and in fact, most people have
not heard about it except in connection with tuberculosis.
However, exposure to non-tuberculosis mycobacterium causes hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and
pulmonary infections in immunocompromised patients, and these diseases are airborne. As
environmental investigators, you know how to collect samples, discover reservoirs, and recommend
remediation protocols. You are the ideal audience for a lecture on a new subject (scientifically
speaking) that you may be able to address in a practical way.
In fact, in this particular area we know almost nothing about environmental exposure to
Mycobacterium aerosols, in part because field investigators haven't been looking for such exposure.
Some outbreaks of hypersensitivity pneumonitis have never been solved because no one has looked
for Mycobacterium aerosols. After having presented the paper on environmental mycobacteria
(written by Dr. Michael Berg of EMLab P&K), I am comfortable with the fact that at least
some members of that audience will remember the facts that were presented, and be able to solve
the next hypersensitivity pneumonitis outbreak investigation.
So read the literature, go to the meetings, and demand that a practical connection be made
between the science being presented and the work that you are doing.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Indoor Environment Connections.
Reprinted by permission.
About Dr. Harriet Burge
Dr. Harriet Burge is EMlab P&K's Director of Aerobiology and Chair of EMLab P&K's
Scientific Advisory Board. Widely considered the leading expert in indoor air quality (IAQ),
Dr. Burge pioneered the field more than 30 years ago. She has served as a member of three
National Academy of Sciences committees for IAQ, including as Vice-Chair of the Committee
on the Health Effects of Indoor Allergens. View Dr. Burge's Curriculum Vitae.
Read "Ask Dr. Burge" articles