Catherine Propper: Environment and Science Advocate

By Kelly Zarcone
Women's and Gender Studies, 2013

Professor Catherine Propper is the new Director of Research Capacity Development in Northern Arizona University's (NAU's) research division. This half-time, one-year experimental transfer of duties gives Propper the exciting opportunity to continue to move NAU forward as a nationally and internationally recognized institution for higher education and research.  According to Regents' Professor Bill Grabe, NAU Vice President for Research, Propper will handle specific science issues both on campus and with science institutions, foundations, and organizations nationwide, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She will also continue to develop teaching excellence at the undergraduate level with scholarly activities for both undergraduate and graduate students. 

Gremillion during a meeting in Khartoum, Sudan

Professor Catherine Propper is the new Director of Research Capacity Development. Photo: IDEA Lab.

"I've got to live here," thought young Catherine Propper as she drove through Flagstaff, Arizona, on a family road trip at the age of fifteen. Propper's budding love of nature, which resonated with Northern Arizona, was cultivated while playing outside in the expansive city of Los Angeles (LA), California. As dense pollution engulfed LA's landscape, Propper started developing a curiosity about the environment outside her hometown's boundaries. "I loved playing outside. I loved animals," says Propper. "Growing up with the pollution in LA is a big part of what motivated me and my work."

Propper's passion for nature led her to pursue a career in biology. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of California (Berkeley) in 1982, and her PhD from Oregon State University in 1989. After spending two years as a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Colorado, she found her way back to the beautiful high desert that she fell in love with so many years prior and joined the NAU faculty as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in January, 1991.

Research with environmental contaminants

Since then, her research has focused on understanding the effects of environmental contaminants on health. Propper credits environmentalist Theo Colburn (the Rachel Carson of our time) with piquing her interest in the effect chemicals have on human systems. "Theo is a hero of mine," says Propper. "I'm very grateful to her and her work."

During the 1990s, when information started coming out about amphibians disappearing all over the world, Propper's interests turned to studying the effect of environmental contaminants on reproduction and other aspects of physiology.

"I don't think dropping dead should be a determining point for when we decide to consider an environmental contaminant as having adverse effects on human and/or wildlife health."

Working with a team of NAU students, both graduate and undergraduate, and collaborating with colleagues from around the world, Propper has been investigating the effects of commonly used pesticides, such as Endosulfan, on the endocrine system, reproduction, and behavioral processes of amphibians. The team is also studying the complex physiological events that result from exposure to environmental mixes of compounds found in wastewater.

"Most chemicals we find are not overtly toxic, and the argument has been that ‘oh, no one is dropping dead from this level of toxicity,' but I don't think dropping dead should be a determining point for when we decide to consider an environmental contaminant as having adverse effects on human and/or wildlife health." One of Propper's goals is that the general public become aware of the complex issue associated with exposure to these chemicals—even though they are in low concentrations in the environment—some are high enough that they may very well be effecting human physiology and endocrine systems.

Optimism about the future

Discussing such intense and disheartening findings can leave one discouraged, despondent, and overwhelmed, but Propper leaves her listeners feeling optimistic instead. "What I tell folks is that there is hope. Take the example of DDT. When we took it out of the environment, we saw recovery." Her eyes flash as she sits up straighter in her chair and reveals a calm and reassuring smile: "Even though it seems like this [environmental contamination] is a huge issue that we are never going to solve, when we really go and take action, things really do get better."

Propper's sense of hope seems to rub off on those she meets and inspires learning and curiosity.  She is as passionate about teaching as she is about research. 

"NAU has allowed me to do the things I want to do. I only hope I can offer this back in whatever way I can," says Propper.

© 2013 Arizona Board of Regents.
Northern Arizona University, South San Francisco Street, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011