You Can Make A Difference: How I Became a “Nifty Fifty”

By Ken Olden, Ph.D.


EPA "Nifty Fifty" scientist Dr. Kenneth Olden

EPA “Nifty Fifty” scientist Dr. Kenneth Olden

Is there something in this world that you would like to see changed? Disease, hunger, health care—I believe we all have things we want to change. That desire for change is how I got to the position that I am in today.

I grew up on a farm along the Appalachian Mountains in rural Tennessee, among the worst poverty in the United States. We were poor, hungry, and I didn’t like the environment in which we lived. I looked around my community and I knew that if we wanted something to change, one of us would need to break out and become a leader. So I thought, why not me?

I decided then that I needed to work hard, go to college, and keep going until I acquired the education to become part of the leadership class. I shined shoes before and after school for 15 cents a pair—that’s how I paid for my first year of college.

I started at Knoxville College in 1956 and earned a B.S. in Biology. Then I earned a M.S. in Genetics from the University of Michigan. After that, I earned my Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Biochemistry from Temple University in 1970.

I made history when I became the first African American to direct one of the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Today, as the Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, I have a platform from EPA, one of the nation’s top environmental and health organizations, for addressing the issues and problems I’ve wanted to see changed since I was a kid.

Picture of Capital City Public Charter School

Capital City Public Charter School, Washington, DC.

Recently, I had the opportunity to share these experiences with students at the Capital City Public Charter School. I was asked to speak at the school as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s “Nifty Fifty (times 4)” program. The program is linking 200 noted science and engineering professionals with middle schools across the Washington, DC area. My fellow “Niftys” and I are sharing stories about our science and career paths throughout the current school year.

I asked the students if there was anything in the world they would like to see changed. One student wanted to change how people perceive hip-hop. Another wanted equality for women in the workforce. Every student agreed that there was something they wanted to see changed.

My question back to them was: “Why not you?”

You have your lifetime ahead of you to make a difference. Everything that has been discovered to date—it’s all just the beginning! There are just as many possibilities for discovery now as there was when I was in middle school. You can make those discoveries and you can make a difference.

I didn’t like seeing health disparity or people living in unhealthy environments when I was their age, and I wanted to change things. I set out in 1956 to make a difference and at 76, I can say I have lived a good life—I have had the opportunity to make a difference. Now it’s their turn.

About the Author: The Director of EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, Dr. Ken Olden has published extensively in peer-reviewed literature, chaired or co-chaired numerous national and international meetings, and has been an invited speaker at more than 200 symposia.

Dr. Olden has won a long list of honors and awards including the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award, the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award for sustained extraordinary accomplishments, the Toxicology Forum’s Distinguished Fellow Award, the HHS Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, the American College of Toxicology’s First Distinguished Service Award, and the National Minority Health Leadership Award. From 1991-2005, he served as the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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