Learning from Einstein and Tupac: A Conversation with Tyrone Hayes
Each of us is exposed to a different cocktail of chemicals every day. Growing the food we eat can be a major source of exposure that not all communities face equally. Conventional agriculture is hugely dependent upon the use of specialized chemicals for pest control; the impact of these agrochemicals on the biological systems they interact with, however, is complex. Tyrone Hayes has spent his career untangling these complexities.
As Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Hayes is best known for his researching on the herbicide atrizine and its effects on the hormones and developmental trajectories of frogs. In our recent conversation, Hayes told me about his approach to endocrinology and the high stakes of publishing findings that agribusiness deems controversial. He also offered an inside look into the world of academic funding in the natural sciences, and shared advice to future scientists hoping to achieve the ultimate—research autonomy.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Kate Ivancic: Can you tell us about how your research motivations have changed over the years?
Tyrone Hayes: Underlying my research is the topic of developmental endocrinology, the role of hormones in the development of amphibians. My involvement with endocrine disruptors has shifted me more towards eco-epidemiology and toxicology. Overall, my interests are still in how chemicals like atrazine can alter hormones and then change developmental trajectories. There are still a lot of basic science questions that we don’t understand. For example, nobody knows what hormone, or what gene, or what chemical tells your body to make sperm versus make an egg. Now, we are seeing that when male frogs are exposed to a certain chemical, they get the wrong signal and they make the wrong germ cells. This is still a very basic endocrinology question, and the frogs become an unfortunate tool that we can use to try to address that.
KI: Can you tell us a little about your research with atrazine? In the past, you’ve worked with agribusiness. How has that relationship evolved over the years?
TH: Around 1997, I was contracted to do a literature review of atrazine and its potential as an endocrine disrupter in amphibians. In 1998, I was funded to do research on atrazine, to determine its effects on amphibians. The contract was from the manufacturer of atrazine. We discovered that atrazine inhibited the growth of the voice box and the larynx, indicating that it was somehow reducing testosterone availability. We subsequently discovered that it also caused feminization; it caused either males to grow ovaries or, in some species, males to grow eggs instead of sperm in their testes. We later found that there were behavioral effects, negative impairments to male sexual behavior, that were also associated with atrazine. After the first study, the company pulled back their funding and eventually hired other people to try to prove that our work was somehow wrong. Eventually, they resorted to other types of harassment that continued until a few years ago.
KI: Are some communities better able to mitigate the risks of chemical exposure than others? How do you work with affected communities?
TH: It’s very clear that if you’re from an affluent community you have greater access to information, greater access to education and better schools, greater access to organic local produce, and access to money to get better healthcare. You are less likely to work in an area where you are directly exposed to chemicals and other hazards, as opposed to immigrant, low income, or minority communities. You have a better environment, usually, and better access to healthcare, so you keep better track of your health. For example, if you read the papers, they say a risk factor for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is being white; it is more common in Caucasians. A woman at one of my talks said, “No, it’s just not diagnosed in other groups.” Or, it’s diagnosed as diabetes, which happens subsequent to the PCOS. When they finally catch the PCOS, it’s further along than it would be in the Caucasian community. So, part of the problem is that in low income, minority, or immigrant communities there are more hazards in the environment and less access to information and healthcare.
Another part of the problem is that maybe you don’t even recognize there is a problem. For example, my father did floor-covering. He would come home with his hair white, and say, “Oh, look how work made me old!” His hair was white because he was sanding asbestos. His uncles, who taught him the trade, all died by age 40. If all you know is that men die at 40, you don’t even realize there is a problem. If, in addition, there is a language barrier, and you are living in a community like the agricultural community where people die at 50, you don’t know that there’s anything wrong. That’s just when people die. So, the part of the problem is that you don’t even recognize that there is a problem, because your frame of reference is that everybody is going through life in the same way. Everybody has this many miscarriages—you don’t realize that you’re in an abnormal situation. Within the agricultural community, a significant number of people are undocumented. Even if you are documented, chances are you know people who aren’t. So, even if you recognize there is a problem, you’re not going to complain. You’re not going to bring trouble to your whole community. So, there are a lot of factors that create health disparities.
I had an experience in Marin County, which is a fairly affluent county in California, asked me to come testify about a plan to fly over and drop pheromones to fight light brown apple moth. It’s not that the insect pheromones were really a risk to human health. But I think it was the idea of a plane flying over spraying something that led the community to have this big hearing. I couldn’t testify that it was dangerous, but one of the many reasons I went was to say, “Look, one county over is an agricultural county, and if you were as active in protecting everybody, then nobody would think of flying over and dropping something on you. It takes a threat to your community to spur action, but other communities really are being sprayed with things that are harmful.
KI: How do you steer clear of advocacy battles that seek to use your results for their cause?
TH: I don’t know how to answer that question. I see incredible things on Facebook sometimes, and I think, “I never said that.” I’ll see an interview that I did, for example, and there will be a group that circulates something that claims I said that the government purposefully puts chemicals in the water to turn black men gay, to destroy the black race. I think, “When did I ever say that?” I’ve learned that you can’t engage these kinds of things over Facebook. It never comes out pretty in the end. There’s no way to prevent that. The internet is both incredible for spreading information—things spread really fast. It’s also incredible for spreading misinformation.
I’ve been linked to the vaccination debate, or to chemtrails. There’s this whole theory that the government puts something in commercial airlines’ exhaust that alters the atmosphere. It’s a big thing that lots of people follow. I think because parts of my story are so unbelievable that they get linked to other unbelievable stories that aren’t actually true, and people can’t tell the difference. If I say a company has some sort of influence over the EPA, which happens, then somebody says there are things going on with vaccines, others don’t know how to separate the truth from the theory. This is in part because people don’t have access to the primary literature. For example, maybe a vaccine paper was retracted because the author faked the data. If you don’t have access to the primary literature, you don’t know that. I’ve gotten into these discussions on Facebook, and someone will ask, “After what happened to you, how can’t you see that there are other conspiracies out there?”
Occasionally, I get invitations to things and I’m side-by-side with somebody, and I just think wow. I gave a talk once alongside a guy who had been a medical doctor before getting his license taken away. He claimed that cancer was a fungus that could be cured with baking soda. Part of his angle was that doctors don’t want people to know that, because they make so much money off of cancer, and they’re trying to shut him down. Then I have to give a keynote where I’m saying a company shut my research down, just like this guy. You can understand how somebody who’s not a scientist, who doesn’t have access to the literature, could be confused by the similarities in our claims.
KI: What are your thoughts on the difference between peer-reviewed and industry monographs? Which are better for informing policy?
TH: Without being judgmental, I think industry scientists see their job as to make money, not lose money, for the industry. Having experienced that with the company that hired me for atrazine testing, I think that in some cases that involves being asked to do things which I think are unethical. That’s why I left the company. For others, it depends on how they draw the line as to what’s ethical and what’s not. It could be designing experiments that won’t show anything. They design an experiment so they can say, “We tested this chemical. It did nothing.” I think when you’re looking at industry studies you have to realize that happens. The ones that are being published are the ones that they selectively decide to publish. How they decide to publish them, and how they decide to present them matters, because they’re making money. That’s their job.
I met Johnny Cochran once. Part of his job, if he’s defending somebody, is to bring up evidence and to confuse the jury so that they can’t make a decision. To some extent, that’s what industries do with atrazine. They do studies that say negative effects can’t be replicated. In some cases, they’re outright lying. In other causes, the statement you’ll see from Syngenta all the time says, “We have over 6,000 studies that say that atrazine is safe.” Where are these 6,000 studies? They’re certainly not in the peer-reviewed published literature. The company may very well have 6,000 little things that they call studies. It doesn’t mean that they’ve done anything to show that my work or other people’s work isn’t valid. But, then the public gets confused because there are 6,000 studies to Hayes’s three. They also use the term “good laboratory practices” for a particular set of standards for how samples are maintained for chain of custody. When they company says, “Hayes doesn’t operate under good laboratory practices,” to the lay person this is confusing. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean I have bad laboratory practices. It means I’m not using these standards, that my lab doesn’t operate on their chain of custody. It doesn’t mean that samples get lost, or that they’re lying around. But, if you’re a lay person, you don’t know that.
KI: It seems like that’s another barrier to understanding.
TH: It’s also a sign of lack of commitment from academics. For example, when the EPA has their hearings, which I’ve presented at twice, anybody can go. You don’t even have to work on atrazine. You can say you want ten minutes to talk about atrazine and you can go to the hearing. I’m one of the few independent scientists that go to these hearings. There are obviously many people working on atrazine, but you don’t get credit for going to the hearings. You’re not going to pay yourself to fly to D.C. Industries, on the other hand, will fly in scientists that are on the payroll. When I sign in, the university’s position is that I’m representing myself, not the university. So, I can’t sign in with my credentials. I just sign in as Tyrone Hayes. The industry-sponsored scientists all sign in with their universities. If you look at the record, it looks like ten different universities and some guy named Tyrone.
KI: You are a beautiful storyteller. All over the internet you can see wonderful accounts of your research, and your abilities were reflected in your talk today. What are your plans and aspirations for writing some non-academic pieces? Where’s your book?
TH: I take off every other spring to write that book, and then I end up going to Wisconsin, going to Florida, to give talks. Then it’s time to teach again. So, I’ve thought about this long and hard. I don’t want to write one of those books that academics pass around to each other. I really want to write something that non-academics would pick up too. So, what I’ve written is more autobiographical, but it also talks about the science that’s been a big part of 20 years out of my 50 on this planet. The hope is that academics still would read it. There are many things in it about being a black scientist and the different experiences that I’ve had (because it’s a very different experience). So, hopefully there is enough science in the book, and there is enough of a story.
I think, to be honest, a large part of what happened with Syngenta, had to do with my persona. I used to joke that they had meetings on how to piss off a black person. If you look at their notes, they literally did. They played on things like feelings that I didn’t fit in. They played on the impostor syndrome that minorities and women experience. They played on that, and the way that I would deliver a talk in a scientific meeting. That’s one of the things that made me think screw all that. I’m just going to tell a story just like I would if I were sitting at home with my folks. So, they got the opposite response. I got emails saying, “You’re a scientist, you’re an entertainer—a preacher.” They would make comments about my sexuality, as if I was going to get upset. The more they said things, the more I expressed who I was. At one point, I said to them that I went to Harvard and could sit back and use big vocabulary and wear my Harvard jacket and my tweed suit, but I don’t have to do that. I can do it my way, and that’s even better. Probably if I were younger, and probably if I didn’t have tenure, and probably if I weren’t confident in myself, then I think they would have affected me. I think they’ve probably done the same thing to others. If you think about who the other big environmentalists in this area are—Theo Colborn, Sandra Steingraber, Rachel Carson—I think they too were all attacked for being women and being too nurturing and caring, and not being a scientist, not fitting in. I think there was the same kind of approach to how those scientists were treated.
KI: Maybe there aren’t clear-cut answers to these issues in academia and our natural environments, but surely talking about it is helpful.
TH: I think we have to keep pushing. You learn something everywhere, whether it’s Einstein or Tupac. And I’ll tell you one thing I learned one year, when I was the keynote at the Presbyterians for Earth Care conference. You can imagine what went through my head. I’ve got gonads in my talk. I’ve got my nails painted; I usually have my eyes done and everything. But I went. And their reason for inviting me was, according to Presbyterian thought, that the Creator made us stewards of the Earth, so they wanted to learn about what I was doing so they’d know how to take care of the Earth. What really impacted me there was that their philosophy was that we can’t fix anything, but we can stop it from getting worse. If you think about climate change, we can’t fix it, but we can stop it from getting worse. Extinction? We can’t make anything come back, but we can stop it from getting worse. The same thing is true of the chemicals in our environment. We can’t fix it, but we can stop it from getting worse.
Featured image: Tyrone Hayes, photo by Brian Hamilton, February 2017.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Tyrone Hayes is Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he holds joint appointments in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, the Group in Endocrinology, the Molecular Toxicology Group, and the Energy and Resources Group. He has published more than forty papers about the environmental impacts on amphibian development in Nature, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bioscience, Environmental Health Perspectives and elsewhere. He has been profiled in the New Yorker, Mother Jones, the TED Radio Hour, the PBS series National Geographic’s Strange Days on Planet Earth, and the children’s book The Frog Scientist. Contact.
Kate Ivancic is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She researches the development of perennial grain cropping systems and their potential in narrowing the gap in global food security. Kate holds a M.S. in Soil Science and Agroecology and is a first-time contributor to Edge Effects. Twitter. Contact.