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From Cellular Activity to Community Activism

By Jon Jefferson


Walking to his car one evening after work a few years ago, Michael Trush noticed a plume of black smoke against the South Baltimore sky. "I wonder what that is," he thought. He soon found out. The smoke came from an explosion in a chemical factory, located a stone's throw from a group of families Trush had been advising about health risks in their neighborhood.

"It was the most heavily industrialized neighborhood in Baltimore," recalls Trush, a toxicologist and an Environmental Health Sciences professor. "There were about 200 families in this little pocket of houses, completely surrounded by huge industrial plants. People were living 20 feet away from gasoline storage tanks." The chemical-plant explosion triggered a government buy-out program, which relocated the families to safer ground.

On the surface, Trush's research at Johns Hopkins has little to do with industrial disasters. His lab focuses on the cellular effects of reactive oxygen, a free radical produced by mitochondria. Widely blamed for cancers and aging, reactive oxygen has spawned a host of antioxidant products and food fads. Gradually, though, Trush has seen the scales of scientific judgment tip toward balance. "Reactive oxygen plays an important role in cell signaling and in controlling cell division," he says. "It's when there's an excess that problems occur, that the dose gets poisonous."

Trush's leap from cellular activity to community activism occurred in the mid-1990s, prompted by a federal research grant that required a community education and outreach component. He began by helping Maryland Public Television produce a series of science education programs. Gradually, he branched out to work with community leaders and activists in neighborhoods facing unusual health risks. "I'm a both-ends-of-the-spectrum kind of guy," he laughs, then—turning serious—adds, "It makes the science we do here and teach here real." Trush's education and outreach program now includes two staff members at Hopkins, as well as participants from other schools, including Morgan State University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. One artist is now creating cartoons to inform people about in-home asthma triggers (including smoking, mouse droppings and even plush toy animals); another project is assessing the health effects from a large bus depot that adjoins a neighborhood.

The communities where he and his colleagues volunteer their expertise are often low-income, minority neighborhoods—a fact noted by Johns Hopkins University, which gave a 2006 Diversity Recognition Award to Trush in honor of his service. Working with such a range of groups "really brings environmental health and public health alive," says Trush, PhD, MS. "That's what's so exciting."