Environmental Justice: Empowering Communities Through Science

UC Davis Junior and Udall Scholar Janaé Bonnell

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Woman sitting on park bench smiling at camera with lake and trees in background
Janae Bonnell, a junior majoring in environmental toxicology is one of 55 students in the nation to be awarded the Udall Scholarship for commitment to careers in the environment and other achievements. (Karin Higgins, UC Davis)

There are many routes to fighting environmental injustice. For Janaé Bonnell, her path began with a movie.

When Bonnell was 15 years old, she saw the film Erin Brockovich and was forever changed. She was fascinated by how that real-life character’s research into contaminated groundwater in Hinkley, California led to a $333 million settlement and some measure of justice for those affected residents.

“I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to get there,” she said.

A few years later, she attended a presentation by UC Davis Human Ecology Assistant Professor Clare Cannon about community health and exposure research in Kettleman City, California. In addition to learning about how a hazardous waste landfill was affecting residents’ health, she also learned that environmental justice—a term that gave a name to her passion – was a career path she could pursue.

The UC Davis junior and environmental toxicology major continues that journey, which has included research in Cannon’s lab analyzing resident interviews from the Kettleman project.

Bonnell’s work was also featured in significant draft revisions to a state tool, CalEnviroScreen, which identifies communities disproportionately burdened by pollution. Her contributions helped her win recognition this month as one of 55 Udall Scholars from across the country.

Through her career, she aims to quantify the local human health effects of pollution and reduce disparities in the distribution of environmental pollution.

“I can help towns just like Hinkley,” she said. “These communities don’t need my voice to speak for them, but if through rigorous research I can help demonstrate there is a true, measurable impact on the health of a population, then that’s meaningful to me.”

Read more about Bonnell, her achievements, and her road to a career in environmental justice in the article “UC Davis Junior Wins Udall Scholarship” by Julia Ann Easley.

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Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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