Sandra Steingraber

Sandra  Steingraber

Ecologist, author, and cancer survivor

by Cody Jakubowski

Sandra Steingraber is currently a scholar in residence in Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. She is recognized for her ability to serve as a two-way translator between scientists and activists.  She has testified in the European Parliament, before the President’s Cancer Panel, and has participated in briefings to Congress and before United Nations delegates in Geneva, Switzerland. She has lectured on children’s environmental health issues on college campuses, at medical conferences, and before the parliament of the European Union. She serves on the board of the Science and Environmental Health Network and is currently a distinguished visiting scholar at Ithaca College in New York. The Sierra Club has heralded Steingraber as “the new Rachel Carson.” In 2001, Chatham College (Carson’s alma mater) chose Steingraber as the recipient the Rachel Carson Leadership Award. In 2006, Steingraber received a Hero Award from the Breast Cancer Fund and, in 2009, the Environmental Health Champion Award from Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles.

When an interviewer asks about the inspiration she has received from Rachel Carson, Steingraber responds:

Carson is my guiding spirit. Like her, I went through an existential crisis in college over whether to study creative writing or biology, and like her I ended up doing both for awhile (I have a Ph.D. in ecology and a master’s degree in poetry) and finally brought the two together in my life as a full-time science writer. Like Carson, I seek to seduce my readers through some pretty tough science by finding a language beautiful and compelling enough to honor the loveliness of the biological systems that I write about. But Carson is also a counter-model for me. I write autobiographically about my own cancer diagnosis whereas she kept that part of her life a secret from her readers.

Her book, Living Downstream, an analysis of what is known and unknown about the relationship between environmental factors and cancer, is in works to take on a new life as film.

“I’m so pleased that the book will have another life in a different medium. I hope it will reach people who live in many of the toxic communities where I am invited to speak and who may not have a bookstore—as my hometown does not—to make this information available.

As for me, I’m actually in the film itself. Yikes. I’ve learned to be demonstrative as a public speaker at the podium, but privately I tend to be very interior. It’s a Midwestern quality I guess. It’s actually stressful to me to express, as a speaking person being filmed, some of the emotive qualities that I’m able to find a vocabulary for as a writer. But I’m learning as we go.”



In filling out medical intake forms, what are your thoughts or experiences with regard to the “presumption that what runs in families necessarily runs in genes.”?

Do you feel any strain when choosing a level of environmental involvement and activism? Do you have any personal experiences you are aware of that contribute to an increased or decreased desire to be environmentally active?

Steingraber uses her creative and literary talent to promote an environmental message which she supports with statistics and scientific facts in the same way Rachel Carson did. What do you think of this method of environmental activism?


About envirolit

Professor of Environmental Literature
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