Before attending Duke for the Master of Arts in Bioethics & Science Policy, Scott “Esko” Brummel was working for AmeriCorps in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating with a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Bowling Green State University, Esko served as a service learning coordinator with the University of Baltimore, acting as a liaison to connect undergraduate students with civic engagement opportunities in the city. The year was 2015 and he found himself in the midst of a city that was at the cornerstone of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of Freddie Gray.
“Baltimore was laid out and raw when I arrived.” Esko commented. “I did a lot of volunteer work in undergrad, but coming to Baltimore, that was the first time I saw how people’s lives were affected by other people’s decisions, how policy was affecting people’s daily lives.”
Esko’s transition from Baltimore to Durham highlights the influence of Duke alumni. Towards the end of his AmeriCorps fellowship, he connected with Darrell White, fellow Bowling Green classmate and soon-to-be Bioethics & Science Policy MA alumni.
“We had taken a lot of classes together in undergrad and had actually traveled to Durham three times to come to the Full Frame Film Festival. Darrell was really interested in cognitive neuroscience and how people make decisions. The classes we had taken together were philosophy classes, and we learned how people make arguments and use evidence to inform their beliefs. The new context for this was for areas like vaccines, climate change – how different communities would assess evidence and determine whether they believed in those concepts. That really sparked my interest in the MA program.”
Esko was ready to apply his sociology experience, “science envy,” and love for science fiction to learn about cutting edge technology and the policy that accompanies its continual advancement. “I wrote about Frankenstein for my application to the program. I appreciated the ‘Could we? Should we?’ theme of the story.”
Upon reflecting on his experience in the MA program, Esko commented that he was particularly inspired by his “Science and the Media” course, a graduate elective taught by Misha Angrist, Senior Fellow with the Duke Initiative for Science & Society.
“The class is basically a narrative non-fiction writing class disguised as a media studies class. But it’s really about the craft of writing about science. The most important thing we do is read the work of and interview practicing science writers. Part of our ethos at Science & Society is doing a better job at mediating between science and scientists on one hand and people who don’t do/understand science or are even intimidated by science on the other hand.” Professor Angrist stated.
The final project of the course is typically a profile of a scientist or a report on a particular subject for which there is local expertise at Duke, UNC, NC State, NIHS, RTI, etc. After a simple Google search of “North Carolina controversy,” Esko hit gold. He centered his final project on now-retired state toxicologist Dr. Kenneth Rudo and the 2016 legal battle between the state Division of Public Health and Governor McCrory’s administration, the force behind the infamous rescinding of do-not-drink notices to well owners who live near coal ash storage ponds.
In early 2014, Duke Energy, the company for which McCrory was employed for 28 years, had a coal-ash spill that prompted a grand jury investigation into the company. After discovering dangerously high levels of hexavalent chromium (a carcinogenic compound found in rocks, plants, and soil) in well-water, now-retired state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo called for the drafting of do-not-drink notices to well owners. Dr. Rudo then testified that he was summoned to Governor McCrory’s office to discuss McCrory’s concerns over the wording of the notices. In response, McCrory’s chief of staff insisted that Dr. Rudo was lying under oath and that his interaction with McCrory never happened. As a result, epidemiologist and section chief in the Division of Public Health Megan Davies resigned in protest, asserting that she could not work for “a Department and Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”
Esko was determined to have direct correspondence with Dr. Rudo to learn more about the controversy. “After I found out he retired, I bought a premium subscription to White Pages so I could find all the phone numbers associated with his name,” he said. “I ended up getting in touch with his daughter, who connected me to him. That was the most exciting class that I took.”
After taking Professor Angrist’s course, Esko was pushed to continue to create meaningful content on diverse topics. He eventually published a paper on physician conflicts of interest (COIs) in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, an open access, peer-reviewed, legal journal focused on the advances at the intersection of law and the biosciences.
Now, Esko is working with Professor Missy Cummings in Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory (HAL). His work focuses on science communication between scientists as it relates to NASA’s Glenn Research Center and their push to use innovative nuclear technology to produce electricity for probes and rovers to be sent into space.
“NASA Glenn is working on a dynamic system as opposed to a static system.” Esko explained. “With a static system, nothing is moving which makes the engineers really happy. There’s no risk of anything breaking. The dynamic system, on the other hand, makes engineers really nervous. But the dynamic system is much more efficient and uses less plutonium – size, volume, and plutonium are scarce resources when you’re thinking of putting stuff into space.”
However, The NASA community is still convinced that dynamic systems are inherently riskier, as fewer scientists are willing to use the dynamic systems on their rockets. With HAL, Esko is reviewing literature focused on how science missions are created. The lab conducts interviews across the country with NASA scientists in order to formulate a model for external factors that are influencing their decisions and justify why their technology should be trusted. The work will culminate in a paper examining a series of case studies of previous space missions that either have or have not opted to use nuclear technology.
So what’s next? Esko is graduating from the MA program this May and will continue to work in HAL.
“I’m really enjoying what I’m doing right now. I think I want to eventually get a Ph.D in science communication, maybe at USC. I feel like I can see the writing on the wall and can predict what’s going to be super important in the future.”
And finally, if there’s anything Esko has taken away from this graduate program, it’s a sense of persistence and drive.
“Duke is the kind of place where people’s doors are open for you to go talk with them. Before working with Professor Cummings, I spent as much time working with her as I did running to different professors’ offices asking them what they were working on and how I could help. For people coming into the MA program, I think it’s designed for people who have personal inspiration and motivation. You have to come with something to contribute because we’re trailblazing here.”
Allyson Luo is a senior majoring in Public Policy. She currently works in Marketing and Communications at Science & Society.