UC Davis Junior Wins Udall Scholarship

Janaé Bonnell walks among the UC Davis Arboretum redwood trees
Janaé Bonnell of El Dorado Hills, a UC Davis junior majoring in environmental toxicology, is one of 55 students in the nation to be named a 2021 Udall Scholar. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

More than professors and fellow students have been taking a close look at the research of UC Davis junior Janaé Bonnell.

The environmental toxicology major's work is featured in significant draft revisions to a state environmental justice tool that identifies communities disproportionately burdened by pollution — and policymakers, stakeholders and others had their eyes on it during the public comment period that just ended.

The contributions to the state project also helped Bonnell win recognition as one of 55 Udall Scholars from across the country. The Udall Foundation awards $7,000 scholarships for commitment to careers in the environment, Tribal public policy or Native health care; leadership potential; record of public service; and academic achievement.

In the service of environmental justice

“Janae’s commitment to using science and policy to reduce environmental injustices is an important aspect of her work and the significance of the impact it has and will continue to have,” Clare Cannon, an assistant professor of human ecology, wrote in a letter recommending Bonnell for the scholarship. “She is motivated by justice and equity in all of her work — to making the world a better place through her insights, knowledge and research.”

A member of the University Honors Program, Bonnell has participated in research with professors, made presentations at academic conferences, won an award for a research report and helped lead the Environmental Toxicology Club.

Among her most rewarding experiences has been helping update CalEnviroScreen, a tool of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) that maps the cumulative impact of pollution on residents by census tract. It is used to help administer environmental justice grants, promote compliance with environmental laws, prioritize site-cleanup activities and identify opportunities for sustainable development.

As a part-time student researcher over two summers and this academic year, Bonnell analyzed the agricultural pesticide chemicals used in California, performed literature searches to update the report’s rationale section with more recent studies on pesticide impacts and analyzed changes in the most polluted areas. She is among those listed in the report’s acknowledgements.

The El Dorado Hills, California, resident discovered the motivation — if not the path — for her life’s work when, at 15, she watched the movie Erin Brockovich. Bonnell said she was fascinated by how Brockovich’s research into the health impacts of contaminated groundwater in Hinkley, California, won some measure of justice and a $333 million settlement for those affected. “I instantly knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said, “but I had no idea how to get there.”

Discovering her path at UC Davis

At UC Davis, she found that path when she attended a presentation by Cannon on health and environmental inequity in Kettleman City, a California community near a hazardous waste facility.

“Environmental justice, for which I had a passion but no name, was something I could pursue a career in,” Bonnell said. “I can help towns just like Hinkley. 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.

“This is the career I was meant for,” she added, “and it’s one I will be passionate about for the rest of my life.”

Since then, Bonnell has worked in the Cannon lab to help analyze resident interviews from the Kettleman project. For another project, she collaborated on a review of research about certain chemicals and helped present the findings to CalEPA officials. And in 2020, she was awarded second place in a university competition for her literature research on disparities in the experiences and incidences of cancer on Native American reservations.

Bonnell plans to pursue a doctoral degree in environmental health or environmental health and occupational hygiene with the goal of becoming a research professor. Later, she said she wants to use her background to develop chemical use and exposure regulations to protect the public and the environment.

About the Udall Scholarship

The Udall Scholarship honors brothers Morris and Stewart Udall, whose public service had a significant impact on Native American self-governance, health care and the stewardship of natural resources. The Undergraduate and Prestigious Scholarships office assists high-achieving students in applying for it and 25 other national and international scholarships. 

Julia Ann Easley is a member of the News and Media Relations team.

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