Like many children growing up near the wetlands of Columbia, SC, Tyrone Hayes spent countless hours lost in nature, discovering and interacting with the flora and fauna near his modest home. The great great grandson of a slave, he was fascinated by life surrounding the magical pooled waters, from lizards and cranes to catfish and snakes. To him, the most intriguing of all activity in the swamp was when tadpoles metamorphosed into frogs. “I’m still just a boy who likes frogs,” said the professor of integrative biology and co-chair of the department of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley. “But my responsibility as a boy who just likes frogs is now much bigger.”
Dr. Hayes – whose groundbreaking research exposed not only the negative impact of herbicides on frogs but also its effects on humans and, specifically, those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged – is an outspoken critic of the Environmental Protection Agency and Syngenta, the manufacturer of the herbicide atrazine, for their efforts to delegitimize his findings and their refusal to mitigate the damage it has caused. He visited Hotchkiss on April 28 through the Beal Lecture Series, coordinated by Keith Moon, instructor in English, history, and Russian. The series was established in 1983 in honor of Thaddeus R. (Ted) Beal Jr. ’35 by his close friend, classmate, and former trustee John Shedd Reed ’35. Beal was the stepson of longtime and much revered headmaster George van Saantvoord. Mr. Reed created the series because he believed that the Hotchkiss School community would benefit from exposure to visiting speakers addressing issues of national or global concern. Past Beal Lecturers include Gloria Steinem, James Surowiecki, Anna Deavere Smith, Jon Meacham, David Remnick, and Ambassador Nicholas Burns.
Earning a B.A. and M.A. in biology from Harvard transported Dr. Hayes to UC Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. in integrative biology and transformed the way the world looks at the negative effects of toxic herbicides, particularly in frogs but applicable to many other species, including humans. His groundbreaking research – met with opposition from big chem companies – focuses on the role of steroid hormones and atrazine in amphibian development. He currently holds the Judy Chandler Webb Chair for Innovative Teaching and Research and last year was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
During his lecture, Dr. Hayes touched upon the glandular impact of atrazine on frogs, causing malformation of sexual organs; for example, following exposure to the chemical, some males turn into females and others become hermaphridites. In fact, everywhere Dr. Hayes and his team found atrazine in nature, they found altered frogs. This research was supported by other scientists around the globe who have identified similar patterns in fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Additional work has focused on the ways in which humans interact with the chemical, from the dispensers to crop harvesters to consumers. According to Dr. Hayes, demographically 95 percent of the field workers are Latinx, so they are hit the hardest when it comes to breast cancers and prostate cancers. Additionally, a lack of access to his type of research further discriminates against these populations.
The time was right to bring a dynamic researcher and lecturer like Dr. Hayes to Hotchkiss, and he was an ideal fit for our student body, says Moon. “What I appreciate most about Tyrone's work are the intense implications of his research on humanity as a whole. This is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work writ large. I know our students were able to infer the broader meaning of his work far beyond his original interests in frogs and their biology,” he says. “Tyrone delivers a powerful message of the personal importance of science in each of our lives without ever coming across as heavy-handed. This is a world-class scientist with a human, down-to-earth way of speaking: our students listened to him with high interest and confidence. We hadn't been able to have an on-campus Beal Lecture in three years. Tyrone was just the right person to get this series up and running again.”
Understanding the value of curiosity-based research that has helped drive his career, Dr. Hayes stressed that this generation has the power to alter the curve. “We can change the paths, but only if we act now, while it is still the future,” he said.
Read More: Dr. Hayes’s favorite book is What is a Frog?, written in 1972 by Gene Darby; “I am still trying to answer that question,” he said. The Frog Scientist is a book about Dr. Hayes and his lifelong journey from backyard explorer to Harvard-educated biologist. The books are available on Amazon.
View the event recording below.