Dr. Judy Crane has turned a complex area of sediment science into a career that transcends time and national borders. But who is the woman behind the mud?
When I stumble over Judy Crane’s official title at the MPCA - Contaminated Sediments Specialist in the Environmental Analysis and Outcomes Division of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, she graciously offers, “The easiest way to describe my job is that I’m a mud doctor!”
Mud doctor, indeed. Dr. Crane studies the pollution and contaminants that end up in sediment at the bottom of lakes, streams, and other bodies of water. She uses that information to understand how those contaminants cycle in the environment and affect humans and aquatic organisms.
Roadmap to success
Dr. Crane grew up on a small acreage near Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University. Early on, she was a nature girl. By 5th grade, she knew she wanted to be an environmental scientist. She put herself through college and graduate school, earning degrees in Animal Ecology (BS), Ecology and Behavioral Biology (MS), and Water Chemistry (Ph.D).
Dr. Crane’s resume reads like a roadmap to scientific acclaim. She’s done work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exploring the human health effects of contaminated sediment sites. She was an environmental consultant in British Columbia, Canada and has worked at the MPCA for over 20 years. She has participated in national workgroups and published a number of scientific journal articles and technical reports. She has also taught, lectured, and been a subject matter expert for several different topics. Simply put, Dr. Crane is the Superwoman of sediment.
Dr. Crane smiles as she explains her current project with Steve Hennes — a gargantuan analysis of more than 20,000 pieces of sediment quality data for nearly 280 chemicals — distilling it into a few surprisingly easy to understand sentences. “We are conducting the first ever broad assessment of sediment quality conditions across Minnesota. This report will give us a road map for future work.”
Dr. Crane says one of the projects she’s proudest of was her research on coal tar-based sealants. Her face lights up as she tells the tale: municipalities were finding high levels of dangerous contaminants in stormwater pond sediments, and they requested a solution from the MPCA and state lawmakers. The MPCA’s Stormwater program sought out Dr. Crane’s expertise. Based on initial work by the U.S. Geological Survey, she suspected coal tar-based sealants could be a major source of the contamination.
The MPCA got funding to conduct a research project on the issue through a bill spearheaded by former Minnesota House Representative Bev Scalze. Dr. Crane’s work showed that coal tar-based sealants were the major cause of contamination. The work of Dr. Crane, and other researchers nation-wide, along with efforts by the MPCA’s Stormwater program and pollution prevention staff contributed to the body of work used by the Minnesota Legislature to enact a statewide ban of coal tar-based sealants. Minnesota was only the second state in the country, after Washington State, to enact a ban. Dr. Crane recalls how good it felt to achieve such a big win. “It was great, because you actually saw something being done and it didn’t take 20 years to happen!” Learn more about the restriction.
The good fight
Reflecting on her educational journey and the beginning of her career, Dr. Crane shares some of the challenges she faced as a young female scientist during the 1980s. Early on, she encountered several instances of sexism in graduate school and in the workplace. “I’m disappointed that there is still so much sexism in the scientific community... it can be hard for women and their work to be taken seriously.”
Dr. Crane’s versatility and resilience helped her to break down barriers. Armed with evidence of her abilities, Dr. Crane fought for equal pay, equally lucrative projects, and much deserved acknowledgement for her contributions to the scientific world. She also credits the adoption of the double-blind research review process by some scientific publications with having a positive effect on women researchers. The process helps to reduce bias on the part of reviewers, as they only judge a researcher’s work, not demographic information like their gender or race.
To be successful in the field, Dr. Crane says, young scientists need to embrace their independent spirit but balance it with good collaborative skills. “New scientists in the field need to be well-rounded; things are changing rapidly and they need to be able to handle it…what they train for in school, may not be what they ultimately end up doing.”
Ultimately, Dr. Crane believes the next generation of scientists needs an unshakeable sense of self and a passion for the work to further the field’s body of knowledge. “There is always more work to be done.”
From the sediment to the sea
Glancing out the window, Dr. Crane explains that she doesn’t get out into the field as much as she used to. Analyzing data and making information accessible for the rest of us is important, but it can be time consuming, she says.
To blow off steam, she takes to the sea in her kayak. Sea kayaking has taken her from Alaska to the coast of Georgia, to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Dr. Crane says her love of water recreation is a key reason for why she’s so dedicated to such a demanding field.
She believes that with increased information about sediment and the contaminants that potentially endanger humans and other living organisms, there is an increased responsibility to our environment. “It’s crucial to ensure that we maintain and support an environment that supports all the activities we love in Minnesota.”