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Getting to Know Deborah Nelson, Part 1

An Interview by Berrak Sarikaya

Deborah Imel Nelson, PhD, CIH, has been interested in human health and environmental conservation since an early age. Then, during her MSES program, someone suggested she take an industrial hygiene course as one of her electives. The rest, as they say, is history. Deborah fell in love with the profession that combined human health and environmental issues and has never looked back.

Deborah has been involved with AIHA since 1977, serving on our Board of Directors on and off since 1998. She first served on the Board as a director from 1998—2001, and then again as secretary from 2002—2005. In 2015, she was elected as the vice president, and we’re excited that she has assumed the AIHA presidency this year. Since she’s been such an integral part of AIHA for the past three decades, we feel fortunate to have her experience helping shape the future of our organization.

After this year’s AIHce EXP in Seattle, we sat down with Deborah to help you get to know her a bit better. We talked about her background, her involvement with AIHA, and her favorite part about AIHce.

AIHA: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your professional background?
Deborah Imel Nelson (DN): OSHA was looking for industrial hygienists in 1975, so I went to work in the Oklahoma City Field Station—very likely as the first woman industrial hygienist in Oklahoma. After finishing graduate school at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, I joined the College of Engineering faculty at the University of Oklahoma. For two years I was an Occupational Health Scientist with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, conducting exposure assessments for the Global Burden of Occupational Injury and Illness. I recently retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Veterinary Services, where we were heavily involved in the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak of 2015—2016. 

AIHA: How did you first get involved with AIHA? 
DN: In 1977, one of the senior IHs in the OSHA office, Glen Williamson, had just discovered AIHA and encouraged all of us to join. (Glen was a wonderful mentor, and for many years was memorialized by the Glen R. Williamson OSHA Success Stories sessions at AIHce.) I also joined the Oklahoma Local Section, and like many of our AIHA leaders, I became very active at the local level first. At the national level, I led the work group that authored the first risk assessment white paper and co-founded the Risk Assessment Committee (now the Risk Committee), the Control Banding Working Group (now the Exposure and Control Banding Committee), and the Fellows SIG. 

AIHA: You were elected as vice president in 2015. Could you tell me a little bit about your experience on the Board?
DN: Thanks to the work of the Content Priority Advisory Group, we’ve identified some very important topics and are directing our resources there. Looking to the future, we’re making concerted efforts to encourage and support our younger members, help educate young people about workplace hazards, and refresh our “brand” and market ourselves to target audiences. It’s much easier now for AIHA members to get involved in these activities, with the “opt-in” approach to volunteering for work groups and projects.   

AIHA: We just had AIHce EXP 2017 in Seattle. What were some of your favorite moments?
DN: AIHce is always a highlight of the year for me; I’ve only missed five since 1977. Unfortunately, members of the Board of Directors are tightly scheduled and don’t get to attend many of the technical sessions. One of my annual favorites is attending the donor reception and meeting our scholarship winners. This talented and energetic group of young people never fails to inspire me. Another treat this year was getting to meet Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules and speaker for our closing session on Wednesday. In my opinion, the closing session on Wednesday provided a sense of closure to AIHce. It’s a keeper!   

If you’re anything like us, you cannot wait to learn more about Deborah and what ​she’s looking forward to as the AIHA President. Hang tight for the next installment of our interview with her on this blog! 

Berrak Sarikaya is a brand amplifier based out of Seattle, Wash. Follow her on Twitter.​



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