Rice alumna Skye Kelty ‘14, former president of the Rice Environmental Club, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Toxicology at the University of California, Davis. We met with Skye to talk about her past involvement with environmental projects at Rice and beyond, as well as her desire to connect scientific research with improving the health of people and communities.
Where are you from?
Skye Kelty: I am from Torrance, California, which is close to the beach in Los Angeles.
Did growing up in California by the beach shape your environmental interests?
SK: Definitely, yes. When I was a kid, I went to the beach almost every day. That’s what really started my interest in nature and understanding natural systems. I started thinking about environmental issues first with litter. When I was a little kid, my friends would actually litter intentionally and I could not handle it, so I would always pick up their trash. Eventually, they would just give me their trash. I knew that when they littered, the trash would end up at the beach and in the ocean. I liked swimming in the ocean and I didn’t want the water to be gross, so it all started there.
After litter what was the next big environmental issue that you became passionate about?
SK: Chemicals were next. I started thinking about the other things we dump that end up in the ocean along with my neighborhood’s litter. After big storms in Los Angeles, there is storm water runoff with litter, motor oil and other chemicals, that all goes into the ocean. I was inspired to join the Surfrider Foundation. This group was started by a bunch of surfers dedicated to protecting oceans and beaches. Surfers are usually the first ones to feel the impact after storms because they are in the ocean surfing every single day. If there are sewage spills or chemical leaks, they are the first ones to get rashes and the first ones to get sick. This led me into the chemical toxicology field and broadened my engagement with other environmental issues.
When you came to Rice, what environmental activities were you involved with?
SK: When I first came to Rice, I joined the Rice Environmental Club and became President the second semester of my freshman year. There were only about three of us in the club at the time – two co-presidents, plus my roommate – so we had to rebuild the club from scratch. We started looking at what initiatives were missing from campus and what was going on in a disconnected way. We focused on to how to rebuild the club and reconnect the existing activities. We restarted RUBI, the Rice University Biodiesel Initiative. I was a biochemistry student at Rice, so I used my lab skills to start a safe biodiesel lab environment along with some of my bioengineering friends. We took waste cooking oil from the campus kitchens and used it to make biodiesel for the diesel lawn mowers on campus.
I also worked on several community outreach events. The first outreach event I did was to start a green film series. I thought it was important to get Rice students connected with local community groups and timely environmental issues. The first film we showed was about the Keystone Pipeline. That event occurred when activism about the pipeline was starting. We also worked closely with TEJAS, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, and started doing bike tours in neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel to learn about pollution and community health and environmental justice. We worked with Dr. Winnie Hamilton, who taught the environmental public health class at Rice, to do a community environmental health festival and to bring various representatives from the Ship Channel community groups. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. However, the best thing for me was to make a niche for anyone interested in environmental issues. They could bring their skills and passion to make positive changes and to increase engagement between Rice students and community groups.
You are an avid cyclist and you spent a brutally hot summer on a bike ride related to environmental issues. Can you tell us about that?
SK: Yes, it was called Ride for the Future and it was through the Better Future Project. We started in New Orleans and biked all the way across Louisiana to Texas, through Houston, through Austin, and up to the Exxon-Mobil headquarters in Dallas with a team of about ten people. We were learning about the impacts of fossil fuel production, refining, and consumption while raising awareness about alternative energy. We lived in churches, slept on the ground all summer, and biked through the rain, the thunderstorms, and the heat. We stayed in environmental justice communities which were some of the most depressing places I have ever been in my life. On almost every block, there was a person with cancer. It was completely normal to have a kid with cancer at every elementary school or for kids to miss school because of extreme nose bleeds caused by air pollution. We saw within those communities some of the oldest petrochemical refineries and some of the oldest and most polluted Superfund sites in America.
What kind of reactions did you get from the people who lived adjacent to the petrochemical plants in Louisiana?
SK: There were a couple of types of communities. Some were multi-generational, where people tended to live in the community their entire lives. They remembered exactly when the petrochemical industries started and what the bayous looked like before the industries. They told us stories of growing up and having amazing fishing and game, like Louisiana is supposed to have. They recalled the exact moment the petrochemical refineries came to town, usually around World War II, and what happened to their land and their families after the refineries arrived. All of the turtles went blind, the fish started getting tumors, they couldn’t shrimp anymore, and all the trees and moss started dying. Eventually, all the health issues seen in nature started happening to the community as well. We would hear these long stories from people in the more stable communities.
The other types of communities were very transient, and there was a real lack of understanding about what was going on in their area. For instance, in Baton Rouge, we were next to an Exxon-Mobil plant and we spoke to the residents in the neighborhood. They didn’t even know that three streets away from their home was one of the biggest chemical plants in America. They just had no idea. They saw the fence and they never looked beyond it or wondered what was behind it.
Almost all of the communities we stayed in were low income, and were typically either African-American, Hispanic, or had an immigrant population. Most of the people were not happy with their industrial neighbors. Many of them had illnesses and lacked adequate healthcare and social services. It was the perfect storm for poor public health.
Now that you’ve graduated, what are you doing now?
SK: I am working on my Ph.D. in toxicology at UC Davis and am in my second year. I already have a lab, and I’m studying naphthalene, which is a chemical made from burning fossil fuels and is one of the active ingredients in cigarettes. We are trying to figure out whether it is a carcinogen. We already know that it can cause negative effects to the lungs, and it is very similar to benzene, a known carcinogen. What I do on a day-to-day basis is try to figure out how naphthalene is processed in the body. We are also trying to figure out whether there are susceptible populations, so we can determine who will be more at risk of getting sick and help keep the most vulnerable people safe.
When you become Dr. Kelty when you graduate, what do you hope to do? Do you want to remain in academia?
SK: I have officially decided that I will not start in academia after graduation. I think I am moving towards a regulatory role, or a role where I can draw upon the latest scientific research and make it have a positive impact on the health of people and communities. That’s the role that I want to play, whether it’s in an industry working in occupational health, or in a government agency like the Environmental Protection Agency. I would like to be a bridge between science and the community.
So finally, as a Rice alumna what advice would you give to students at Rice with environmental interests?
SK: Say yes to a lot of things as you get started, and then learn how to say no. A lot of the initiatives I ended up working on at Rice came about because someone would come to me with specific interests or would send me a random email. I would say yes and go test it out. For example, I received an email once that said in the subject line “Chickens in Houston,” and I immediately said yes to it and ended up doing this great campaign to legalize urban hens. I think trying things that are new that might interest you is a great idea. However, once you get enough things on your plate, you need to make sure to start saying no. I reached a level where it was very stressful trying to do too much, and so I had to learn when to start saying no. However, it prepares you well for graduate school and that lifestyle. I think that is the main thing is to say yes and then just try to find something where can use your skills. The environmental movement isn’t just one topic or one initiative, and you don’t have to be an engineer or a doctor to make a difference. You can do lots of things to really help people and the environment.