Penelope A. Fenner-Crisp

Born: April 18, 1939 | Milwaukee, WI, US

Penelope Fenner-Crisp grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Fenner-Crisp majored in zoology, working on mosquitos and malaria in Harry Beckman’s lab, and minored in chemistry. After experience in different labs in the United States and United Kingdom, Fenner-Crisp began work at the Environmental Protection Agency, writing health advisories about neurotoxins in pesticides. She helped organize Women in Science and Engineering. She became deputy director and then director of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances; from there Fenner-Crisp went to the Office of Pesticide Programs where she worked on the science policy for the Food Quality Protection Act before retiring. After leaving the EPA Fenner-Crisp was director of the Risk Science Institute at the International Life Sciences Institute for four years, working on cancer guidelines for a different branch of ILSI. She hopes to improve general principles for assessment. Officially retired, she nevertheless continues to work for the non-profit organizations American Chemistry Council and Long-Range Research Initiative.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0712
No. of pages: 122
Minutes: 290

Interview Sessions

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie and Jody A. Roberts
3 and 4 April 2012
Fenner-Crisp's Home, North Garden, Virginia

Abstract of Interview

Penelope Fenner-Crisp grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of two children. Her father changed jobs frequently; her mother was a housewife until Fenner-Crisp was nearly through high school. The family all read a great deal, and Fenner-Crisp loved science from third grade on. At the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Fenner-Crisp majored in zoology and minored in chemistry. While in college Fenner-Crisp worked at Marquette University’s Medical School, working first on mosquitos and malaria in Harry Beckman’s lab. She later switched to work on blood pressure in James Hilton’s lab and moved to Galveston, Texas, as a graduate student in his lab. In Galveston she married, had her first child, and finished her dissertation research. When her husband finished his PhD and accepted a position at Georgetown Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, the family moved to Northern Virginia. Four years after their second child was born, Fenner-Crisp began (and finished) a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in her husband’s laboratory. When the family went to Birmingham, England, for her husband’s sabbatical, Fenner-Crisp worked on cardiac function in John Coote’s lab. Back at Georgetown University she worked in Frank Standaert’s lab for eighteen months and spent a few months working on a toxicology report for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). All this experience made her realize that she did not want to teach or to do research in a lab.

Finding another career option at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fenner-Crisp began by writing health advirsories for neurotoxic pesticides in drinking water. She helped organize Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). Tired of the Office of Drinking Water and wanting to help make policy, she became deputy director and then director of the Health and Environmental Review Division of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances. From there Fenner-Crisp went to the Office of Pesticide Programs, where she had the most fun.

Next Fenner-Crisp began work on the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), dealing again with neurotoxins as well as other classes of pesticides. She found that she liked working in the data-rich environment of pesticide regulation. An NAS study on pesticides in the diets of infants and children in the twenty most commonly consumed foods concluded that no carcinogens should be approved. Congress mandated an almost-immediate establishment of EDSTAC (Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee), so the EPA had to find scientists and design tests. Fenner-Crisp set up the office in which the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program would reside, but refused to run it, instead going back to Pesticides for her last few years at the EPA; there she finished the FQPA-mandated science policy on the child-specific additional 10x safety factor, and, feeling a sense of “completion” and believing that the “fun stuff” was done, she retired.

After leaving the EPA Fenner-Crisp was director of the Risk Science Institute (RSI) at the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) for four years, working on many projects designed to improve general principles and practices of risk assessment.

Fenner-Crisp is skeptical about absolute claims on either side of a scientific argument; she talks about voluntary versus involuntary risk and personal responsibility. She explains animal welfare issues and their value in translating study results for their prediction of the impact on human health of exposure to chemicals. She talks about personalities, rivalries, and competition, within and between shifting departments, populations, and administrations. She promotes government career choices for chemists and scientists in other disciplines. She discusses publishing, women in science, and professional societies. Regarding pesticides, she advises the public to “be aware but don’t be afraid.” Officially retired, she nevertheless continues to participate in the activities of several science-based non-profit organizations such as GreenBlue and Piedmont Master Gardeners.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1962 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee BS Zoology
1964 University of Texas Medical Branch MA Pharmacology
1968 University of Texas Medical Branch PhD Pharmacology

Professional Experience

Marquette University

1959 to 1961
Research Technician, Department of Pharmacology, School of Medicine
1959
Research Technician and Assistant, Department of Pathology, School of Medicine
1961 to 1962
Research Technician and Assistant, Department of Pathology, School of Medicine

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

1961 to 1962
Undergraduate Teaching Assistant, Department of Zoology

University of Texas Medical Branch

1962 to 1966
Graduate Teaching Assistant, Department of Pharmacology

University of Birmingham Medical School

1974 to 1976
Visiting Scientist, Department of Physiology

George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

1971 to 1976
Adjunct Instructor, Postdoctoral Fellow, Research Associate, Department of Anatomy
1976 to 1978
Research Associate, Department of Pharmacology

US Environmental Protection Agency

1978 to 1987
Senior Toxicologist, Health Effects Branch, Office of Drinking Water
1987
Special Assistant to the Director, Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances
1987
Acting Director, Health and Environmental Review Division, Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances
1987 to 1989
Director, Health and Environmental Review Division, Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances
1989 to 1994
Director, Health Effects Division, Office of Pesticide Programs
1994 to 1995
Acting Deputy Director, Office of Pesticide Programs
1995 to 1997
Deputy Director, Office of Pesticide Programs
1997 to 1998
Special Assistant to the Assistant Administrator, Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances
1998 to 2000
Senior Science Advisor to the Director, Office of Pesticide Programs

International Life Sciences Institute

2000 to 2004
Executive Director, Risk Science Institute

Independent Consultant

2004 to 2018

Honors

Year(s) Award
1964

Johanna Blumel Award to female medical or graduate student with highest grade point average (GPA)

1982

USEPA Gold Medal for Exceptional Service (In recognition of the creative development and exceptional implementation of health advisories which were extremely useful to States and communities affected by contamination of drinking water supplies in the United States)

1986

USEPA Bronze Medal for Commendable Service (For outstanding service in the organization and review of Risk Reference Doses (Acceptable Daily Intakes) and the science from which they are derived)

1988

USEPA Bronze Medal for Commendable Service (For outstanding contributions in the development of the first 25 Toxicological Profiles in accordance with Section 110 of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986)

1988

USEPA Bronze Medal for Commendable Service (For exceptional achievement in the development and implementation of the Office of Drinking Water’s Performance Improvement Project)

1989

USEPA Bronze Medal for Commendable Service ( For exceptional achievement in the timely development of Health Advisories for the National Pesticide Survey)

1994

USDA Certificate of Appreciation (In recognition of significant contributions in developing the Codex Strategic Planning document)

1996

Society for Risk Analysis Risk Practitioner award

1999

USEPA Bronze Medal for Commendable Service (Recognition for scientific expertise and national leadership shown in developing the EPA policy for use of probabilistic analysis in risk assessment).

2000

USEPA Fitzhugh Green Award (the Agency’s highest award for contributions on behalf of EPA to its international activities)

2003

Toxicology Forum Fellow

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family life in Milwaukee. Early interest in reading and science. Schooling.  

College Years
5

University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, zoology major, chemistry and English minors. Tech in Harry Beckman’s lab, working on mosquitos and malaria. Switches to James Hilton’s lab; move to Galveston, Texas. Work on blood pressure. Publications.

Graduate School Years
16

Continues in Hilton’s lab. Lab size and composition. Marriage and birth of children. Dissertation research and defense. Working in husband’s reproductive endocrinology lab. Husband's sabbatical in Birmingham, England. Teaching. Learning electron microscope. Working on cardiac function, similar to her graduate research, in John Coote’s physiology lab. Frank Standaert’s lab at Georgetown University for eighteen months. Few months working on toxicology report for National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Realized she did not want to teach or do lab research.

Starting at Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
34

Politics. Neurotoxins in pesticides; writing health advisories. Helps found Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). Preferred to synthesize others’ data. Enjoys getting EPA started. Children’s careers. Move to Charles Elkins’ division to help make policy. Deputy director, then director of the Health and Environmental Review Division of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxic Substances. Move to Office of Pesticide Programs. Working on Russian-English dictionary of scientific terms in Moscow, Russia.

Within the EPA
56

Alar and apples. Finishing at Pesticides. Working on Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA). Back to working with neurotoxins. Working in Health Effects Division and on exposures. Learning exposure assessment. Asbestos problem in different division. Updating Congress about children’s health. NAS study on pesticides in diets of infants and children. Twenty most commonly consumed foods. EBDCs. FQPA Delaney Clause. Personalities and rivalries; competition. Shifting departments, populations, administrations. Endocrine disruption work complicated; no tests available at that time; had to find scientists and design tests. Endocrine Disruptor Screening and Testing Advisory Committee (EDSTAC), Wingspread Conference well-funded until present. Carol Henry. Lynn Goldman. Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP). Back to Pesticides for last few years at EPA. Finishes science policy for FQPA.

International Life Science Institute (ILSI)
82

Alex Malaspina sets up nonprofit to study development of science topics important to food industry. Fenner-Crisp appointed director of Risk Science Institute (RSI), stayed four years. Now contractor, working on cancer guidelines for different branch of ILSI. Translating to non-cancer toxicity, results sent to World Health Organization (WHO). Interagency disagreements. Publications. Women in science. Government career alternatives for chemists. Professional societies. Important role in risk assessment guidelines across agencies. Drafts FQPA’s 10x safety factor policy. POPS Treaty (Stockholm Convention).

International Work
93

Working with WHO after Moscow trip. Alternate years with United Nations (UN). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) work and endocrine disruption. Joint Meeting on Pesticides and Residues (JMPR):  domestic agenda vs. international. Independence of science experts representing country, not agency. Tobacco industry’s interference. Importance of mutual exchange. Delaney Clause removal. Finished FQPA, felt sense of “completion.” Thought “fun stuff” all done, so retired. Some informal mentoring; new hires’ qualifications. Carol Henry. Non-profit work since retirement:  American Chemistry Council (ACC) and supporting LRI. General principles for assessment.

General Thoughts
104

Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM):  minimizing animal sacrifice; translation to human health. Need for alternate chemical testing; European Union push to end animal testing. Public’s view of pesticides. Critic of Environmental Working Group (EWG’s) assessment process in Dirty Dozen. “Be aware, but don’t be afraid.” Skeptical toward absolute claims on either side. Voluntary vs. involuntary risk. Personal responsibility. Challenge never to be completely certain but have to guide or regulate, for both humans and ecology. She and husband both from poor backgrounds but worked hard at what they liked. Husband’s career:  nickel studies for EPA. Endocrine Disruption purple book. EPA job and fear of writing and speaking. Still working on projects, though fewer, in retirement.

Index
120

About the Interviewer

Jody A. Roberts

Jody A. Roberts is the Director of the Institute for Research at the Science History Institute. He received his PhD and MS in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech and holds a BS in chemistry from Saint Vincent College. His research focuses on the intersections of regulation, innovation, environmental issues, and emerging technologies within the chemical sciences.

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie earned a BA in history at the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in public history at Temple University. Her research has focused on the ways in which historical narratives are created, shaped, and presented to diverse groups. Before Sarah joined CHF, she was the Peregrine Arts Samuel S. Fels research intern and Hidden City project coordinator. Sarah worked both in the Center for Oral History and the Institute for Research at CHF and led projects that connected oral history and public history, producing a number of online exhibits that used oral histories, archival collections, and other materials. She also contributed to CHF’s Periodic Tabloid and Distillations.