Dr. Susan D. Shaw is an American environmental health scientist, marine toxicologist, explorer, and author. She is an adjunct Professor, School of Public Health, SUNY-Albany and Founder/President of the Shaw Institute, a nonprofit scientific institution with a mission to improve human and ecological health through innovative science and strategic partnerships. Shaw is globally recognized for pioneering high-impact environmental research on ocean pollution, climate change, oil spills, and plastics that has fueled public policy and societal change over three decades.
A Fulbright scholar with dual degrees from Columbia University in Film and Public Health/ Environmental Health Sciences, Susan Shaw’s early career was launched with the 1983 publication of Overexposure with the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The book was the first to document the health hazards of photographic darkroom chemicals and pointed to a link between exposure and cancer in young photographers. Ultimately, this book transformed the field.
Founding the Institute in 1990, Dr. Shaw turned her attention to ocean pollution. Named Gulf of Maine Visionary in 2007, she was credited as the first scientist to reveal widespread contamination of fish and marine mammals in the northwest Atlantic Ocean by flame retardant chemicals leaching from furniture. For this discovery, Shaw was awarded a Citation of Recognition by the Governor and State of Maine Legislature. She currently leads a multinational project with scientists from Sweden, Greenland, and Iceland to assess the converging impacts of climate change and flame retardant chemicals on marine mammals from the US Atlantic, Baltic, and Arctic seas.
An outspoken and influential voice on ocean pollution, Shaw dove into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 to investigate the controversial use of chemical dispersants to sink the oil. She was appointed to the U.S. Department of Interior’s Strategic Sciences Working Group to assess the consequences of the oil spill and recommend policy actions. Her account of the hidden damage below the water’s surface was published in the New York Times and widely broadcast through TED talks and international media including CNN. Dr. Shaw appears in several documentary films on the Gulf disaster including Animal Planet’s Black Tide: Voices of the Gulf and Green Planet’s The Big Fix, the Official Selection documentary at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
In 2009, Shaw led a landmark investigation to address the high rates of cancer among the nation’s firefighters. The study (Shaw et al. 2013) revealed firefighters from San Francisco absorb extremely high levels of cancer-causing chemicals including flame retardants in their bodies following exposure to smoke from chemically-treated furniture and plastics. Widely featured in national media, the study helped fuel chemical legislation in several states and improved protections in the fire service in the US and Europe. Currently, the Institute is focusing on linkages (biomarkers) between chemical exposure and early disease onset in firefighters.
Plastic pollution has been a major focus of Dr. Shaw’s research since 2012, when the Institute launched the first studies of microplastics in the Gulf of Maine. The alarming numbers of plastic fragments found in presumably “pristine” coastal waters and seafood (oysters, mussels) helped drive a ban on microbeads in Maine and nationally. The Institute recently partnered with the international Plastics Health Coalition in order to advance understanding of the damaging effects of microplastics in the human body and to promote plastic reduction across multiple sectors on a global scale.
The recipient of numerous awards, Dr. Shaw is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and was named Gulf of Maine Visionary by the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. In 2012, the international Explorers Club recognized her leadership role in ocean exploration and conservation with a Citation of Merit Award. Dr. Shaw is the 19th recipient of the Society of Woman Geographers’ Gold Medal Award since 1934, joining the ranks of Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall.