Untold Innovation Stories: Rebecca Lyons

Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Rebecca Lyons

By: Dani Clark

This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!

Our next innovation story comes from Rebecca Lyons, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Redlands. Our interview covers how complex research can start with a simple love for the outdoors. Read how her work develops solutions to environmental challenges and advocates for better regulation policies. Rebecca tells future innovators to embrace their quirks and see them as the differentiators they need to be great researchers. So, consider taking a break outside, and read into our interview with Innovator of the Month, Rebecca Lyons.

P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form or email us with their information.

Rebecca Lyon’s Innovation Story

Rebecca Lyons Headshot

Rebecca Lyons is a trained environmental chemist and associate professor of chemistry at the University of Redlands in Southern California. Her research centers on Sierra Nevada glaciers as part of her life commitment to study the places she loves and preserve their ecological health.

UC: What is your field of specialty?

RL: It’s funny, I was talking to one of my research students this morning about this question, and they responded, “Well, you do a lot of things. You do medical, human impact, science, and technology–all of those things are in your research.” And I thought, “Hey, wow. Sounds about right.” I’m an associate professor in the chemistry department at the University of Redlands in southern California. We have a really lively research program here. My field of specialty is in chemistry. I trained as an environmental chemist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
My current job is actually my first job out of my graduate program. I found it in the back of a magazine, and I applied. How random, right? It was tenure-track! And I thought, “This doesn’t happen,” but it did, and I’m really grateful. I love this university. I love the students that I get to work with. It’s a total win-win. Anyway, environmental chemistry is a pretty broad field and to narrow that down, I look at trace organic compounds.

UC: Where does your personal innovation story begin?

RL: This is probably where most environmental chemists get their start, but I spend a lot of time outside. That’s my other life. When I’m not being a professor, I’m running around the mountains. I’m a climber and a hiker. I just sit outside a lot, it’s what I want to do, and you can’t help but notice human impact, right? You can’t really be in a natural environment anymore. It almost doesn’t exist. I know I sound like such a cynic. I feel like this “harbinger of doom” [laughs]. Every time I teach an environmental chem class, I’m like, “Sorry, guys, we’re really messing things up.” But I also hope that will inspire people to take responsibility and step up to change things, which is my response to seeing environmental degradation. I wanted to step up and help. And so I did.

I started studying a lake in New York, which was close to my graduate school. I was horrified at what we had done to this lake, which also happens to be a Native American sacred site. It was heartbreaking. It was to the point where you wouldn’t want to swim in it; you wouldn’t want your animals to swim in it. It was just in really bad shape. To think that we had taken this place and trashed it beyond measure—it just broke my heart. So, that’s actually where I started doing my graduate work: on this little lake in Central New York. Then I came to California, and I thought well this should be low-hanging fruit. There’s plenty of pollutants out here. And there was, but I had a hard time finding a “control, ” the thing that hasn’t been changed or touched, and that’s what you’re going to do your comparison with. I could not find a clean lake anywhere in southern California. Someone suggested that I go north to the Sierra Nevada Mountains—that may be there I could find a lake that was relatively untouched, at least by comparison. And, indeed, that’s where I went, and that’s why I ended up doing the majority of my research. I was floored by the beauty of the place that John Muir wandered all over the place and did his famous writings about, and I could suddenly see what all the hype is about. That’s kind of what I ended up doing, in my own way. I started to look at one very specific compound, including where it was located, why it was there, and what it was doing.

UC: What are the impacts of your research on the field at large?

RL: The compound that I’m looking at is an endocrine disruptor, specifically it’s an estrogen mimic. At very low concentrations, it can attach itself to biological organisms and act like estrogen. We’re finding this in the high alpine region in the Sierra Nevadas in these very fragile ecosystems. Alpine lakes are a delicate balance and once this stuff gets into organisms during their development stage, it can really send things into a tailspin. I’m not a biologist, so I haven’t studied this in the Sierras specifically, but I can speak to other occasions where this compound has caused extremely deleterious effects. I’ve seen higher mortality in the wildlife species, but then in human populations, we’re seeing different types of endocrine disruptors like hormone-related cancers. So, I’m sort of jumping back and forth between wildlife and human population, but I want to give the broad picture of what these compounds are capable of. For the record, the name of the compound is 4-nonylphenol. 

Anyway, this stuff doesn’t just enter the environment on its own. There’s this sneaky little loophole when it comes to pesticides and detergents. Despite how harmful it can be, this compound doesn’t make the ingredients list. So now, it’s present in huge quantities in the environment. We’re using something on the order of 600,000 tons per year, which is just an obscene number. It’s not being regulated. If you go to Europe, it’s outright banned and that’s on the “Top Ten Pollutants of Concern” list for the European Union. 

It’s one of my goals to see regulation increase in this country. And a lot of times with chemistry, there are alternate substances that can be used in place of something that’s so toxic. I would love to see the industry willingly phase that out and start using something new. Of course, there’s always a cost in the industry, but I think it’s very doable. That’s one of the things that I’m doing right now. I’m talking to people in Sacramento and trying to get awareness space there. I want to keep doing this work because this stuff is everywhere and it’s not good for us.

On a bigger scale, I’d like there to be a raising of consciousness. The paper that I’m getting ready to publish is looking at places in the environment that act as reservoirs for this compound. One of these reservoirs is in glaciers. And as glaciers are melting, it’s releasing this stuff. It’s also something to think about in terms of downstream drinking water. If it’s upstream glaciers and upstream snowpack, then downstream drinking water like Los Angeles, for example, is going to be impacted by this stuff. Right now, I’m working on bringing awareness of where this compound exists in the scientific community. I have some great colleagues that work with GSI programs on to do some really detailed modelling of how much of this is actually trapped in the snowpack and glaciers. That’s the exciting thing about environmental science—it really is interdisciplinary. Ecologists, modellers, people that do water chemistry and water quality analysis are all going to be impacted. People haven’t really seen glaciers as a reservoir. That’s fairly new. Within the past three or four years, people started looking at glaciers in Switzerland and looking at legacy pollutants there and they were shocked at how much was there and how much it’s impacting downstream lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. That’s something that a lot of people need to be aware of. Revealing information or innovation in one area can shift so many other areas of study.

UC: What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?

RL: That is such a great question. Whenever I work with a research student and they’re writing their first paper, that’s what I tell them they’re doing. They need to tell its story. We need to be asking: “What is the story that you’re developing through your research?” It’s not just a bunch of data. It’s not like some esoteric exercise. It’s a story that you have to situate in the world first, before you start sharing what you’ve found. I love telling stories. That’s what I do. Whenever you write a paper or speak at a conference, it’s a story. Beginning, middle, and end and then a “to be continued” because of course it’s meant to have a sequel. In fact, there is this little hook at the end of my paper that says, “This model that I’ve developed with GIS and all the new technology works really well for the Sierra Nevadas, but does it work everywhere? Stay tuned.” That’s actually what we’re doing next year: we’re going to expand our scope and look ahead to the next chapter, which includes Alaska and Wyoming. Sure, writing about research can be about getting more funding, but it’s also about getting myself excited about what’s next and where the research is going. I’m not just telling a story based on what I have found in the past, but orienting it toward the story that could be told in the future.

And it’s funny because in graduate school, it’s all about narrowing your focus, where you’re supposed to be looking at this tiny little question in great detail. And then you get out of graduate school and realize, “Oh god. There’s so much to do.” It’s like lifting your head up after looking through a microscope for so long, and seeing that there is a whole room here.

UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?

RL: It’s great because I get to work with future innovators all the time. I just love what I do because I work with such amazingly talented students. I feel like everyone comes to the table with a unique set of skills. They might not recognize that those are skills. So, there’s a student that I have right now who I just adore, and he says things like, “I’m so much of a big picture person. I don’t think I’m going to be as good at science. I get all wrapped up in these causes, and I don’t think I’m going to be a good scientist because I’m too emotional and I’m too this and too that.” And I have to tell him, the reason that he’s going to be an amazing scientist is because he brings that big picture view to the table. He’s not going to get so hung up in some little detail and spend his life worrying about it. He’s going to be looking back at the world and getting a sense of why something is just or unjust. I had another student that saw things in three dimensions. He saw things graphically. He could do images in a way that no other student ever had before or since. And so when I work with a student, when I work any innovator to be, I say: “Don’t discount the funny things that you do. All the little quirks that you have are the things that are going to make you great at what you do. Don’t put them aside because they don’t fit that image in your head of what it means to be an innovator.”

Thanks for reading Rebecca’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.

And, don’t forget to nominate an innovator in your sector. Complete our online nomination form or email us.

*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.

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