BILL FIELD University researcher dedicates his life to improving public health.
Twenty-five years ago, doctors told Bill Field that he might never work again.
As a health physicist at the University of California, Berkley, he was exposed to dangerous fumes after an accident involving improperly disposed chemicals. Field was working to evacuate the affected area of campus when he was exposed, and was left with severe eye and nerve damage. He spent several years recovering while on social security disability benefits.
Field, who held a master’s degree in biology, later moved to Iowa City after his wife was offered a professorship in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and decided to try going back to school. His longtime interest in public health blossomed in 1979, when he performed radiation-related research as a graduate student in the aftermath of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pa., during its partial core meltdown. Field’s chemical exposure experience deepened his desire to help others live in healthful environments and led to an interest in environmental and occupational health.
“I have always had a very heartfelt passion for people,” Field remembers. “I just really care about people; there are things that happen to people that are senseless, that don’t need to happen, that lead to ongoing adverse consequences to their health.
“The chemical exposure gave me even greater empathy and direct understanding of what someone who has an occupational injury has to go through,” he says. “It gave me insight into the plight that they face.”
So he began taking classes at a slow pace with very supportive faculty members in the College of Medicine, eventually started working as a researcher, and earned a doctorate in preventive medicine and environmental health in 1994.
Now he is known worldwide as an expert on radon, a colorless, odorless gas that enters the basements of residential homes through cracks in the foundation. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer overall, and the primary cause of lung cancer in people who have never smoked, but it can be mitigated easily and relatively inexpensively.
Field’s academic titles are many: professor of occupational and environmental health as well as epidemiology in the UI College of Public Health; director of the Occupational Epidemiology Training Program at the Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety in the UI College of Public Health; director of Pulmonary Outcomes Cluster at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Environmental Health Sciences Research Center. In addition, Field has served as a public health consultant and advocate locally, nationally, and globally.
“Outreach is truly a part of scholarship,” he says. “A logical outgrowth of my academic endeavors is to communicate the findings to the public, and not to just say, ‘Here, we did this paper, we had these findings, go read about it,’ but to actually communicate to the public what those findings mean. It involves a grass-roots effort in the local community to the worldwide stage. And the ultimate goal is to put in place initiatives or interventions that would decrease future adverse health outcomes.”
Field spent four years working with the World Health Organization helping to lead its efforts to produce guidance to reduce the global burden of radon-related lung cancer, serves on the Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board’s Radiation Advisory Committee, and was recently appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a group that provides advice to the Secretary, Health and Human Services regarding activities under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.
“I work too many hours,” he admits. “I’m called to it, and it’s hard to turn my back on it. My energy comes from the hope that you’re improving the health of the community, the nation, the world, that someone out there who you will never know may live 30 or 40 years longer because they became aware through the outreach that you’re doing, and will have a better life.”
He has a long list of ideas for future projects, including researching the effects of pesticide exposure in children, and the creation of a registry that would track autoimmune disorders and facilitate research examining the causes of those diseases.
But, he says, his most important roles at the University are educator and mentor.
“There aren’t very many things that are as enjoyable as seeing a student grow and be successful,” he says. “My philosophy is to really try to understand the background of each student: their strengths, their weaknesses, their passions. I want to enable their academic dreams and encourage them to pursue what’s in their heart. Once you find an area of public health that you have a passion for, it’s no longer work—it becomes a drive, a heartfelt desire to help people.”
story by Anne Kapler; photo by Tim Schoon
March 1, 2010