Mission Possible

It took less than three weeks for the pea-sized lump in one of Vernal Branch’s breasts to grow into a tumor the size of a golf ball. Her immediate response was to learn everything she could about treatment options—and to take action. In the dozen years since her diagnosis and the mastectomy that followed soon after, Branch has taken that same thoughtful yet decisive approach to her role as an impassioned advocate for research into the environmental causes of breast cancer.

“I began by getting involved with several breast cancer organizations,” Branch says. “I eventually gained the confidence to take part in shaping public policy. And I’ve since been able to create educational outreach programs that affect the African American community.”

Branch now serves as a minority recruitment consultant for the Sister Study, a national research program that follows the sisters of women with breast cancer to help tease out the different roles that genes and the environment may play in causing the disease.

More recently, Branch has been sharing her hard-won expertise as one of the founding members of Silent Spring Institute’s National Advisory Council.

Joan Gardner, director of the University of Massachusetts–Boston GIS Core Research Facility, serves as chair of the new Council. Before joining the university, she was the chairwoman and president of Applied Geographics, Inc., a geographic information systems consulting firm.

Other Council members include Samuel Bader, PhD, a senior physicist and leader of the Nanomagnetism Group at Argonne National Laboratory.

Shelley Hearne, DrPH, brings a depth of experience in environmental health. A former executive director of Trust for America’s Health, she has also served as executive director of the Pew Environmental Health Commission, acting director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Pollution Prevention, and staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she focused on issues relating to pesticides and other toxic substances.

Jeanne Mockard is the managing director and senior portfolio manager for Putnam Investments in Boston.

Ellen Parker, who chairs the Silent Spring Institute Board of Directors, is a social worker in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. She is also a former president and founding board member of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, as well as a founding board member of Silent Spring Institute.

Mary Wolff, PhD, is the director of the Division of Environmental Health Science at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She also directs the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research. Her research focuses on the measurement of environmental exposures and their relationship to cancer risk, reproductive dysfunction, and developmental disorders.

These Council members offer a diversity of backgrounds, yet they all share a passion for uncovering the links between cancer and the environment. “I’m working for my two-year-old granddaughter,” Branch says. “I don’t want her generation to be burdened with the increasing rates of breast cancer that my generation has faced. I want to help prevent the disease.”