It was on a working family farm in East Yorkshire that Tom Hutchinson first began to form an appreciation of the environment and its impact upon human health. It wasn’t just the cattle, the sheep, or the crops that triggered the process, nor his father’s careful maintenance of the landscape with traditional hedgerows, field borders and meadows full of curlews and other wading birds. It was also their proximity to major urban areas on the Humber and Tees estuaries, with their polluted waters entering the North Sea, which frequently made media headlines during the 1980s.
It’s an interest that has come to define his career, one that has taken him around the world, through commercial and governmental science, before landing in academia. Now the University’s new Professor of Environment and Health Sciences, in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tom is looking to use some of that experience, and the connections he has made, to enhance his teaching and research at Plymouth.
“From my scientific training, I feel there is an absolutely fundamental link between human health and wildlife health,” Tom says. “And that has direct implications for the sources of our drinking water, the quality and security of our food supplies, and the wellbeing of children and families and individuals in being able to enjoy and connect with a healthy natural environment. That has been my driving principle in a professional capacity: people cannot be healthy if the world they live in is not healthy.”
It was the opportunity to study environmental biology at King’s College London that set Tom on his way, although he would soon return as a research scientist, working for ICI on a project to tackle the ‘legacy chemicals’ that were contaminating the environment surrounding major industrialised centres.
“The pollution from cities, particularly in the North East, was so great that there were lots of human waste and toxic chemicals, with hardly any oxygen in the rivers,” he says. “But thanks to the scientific work and industrial investment in clean up, we’ve seen a huge success story: the otters are back, the osprey and other fish-eating birds have returned, and we have seal populations again. We have brought these rivers and UK coastal waters back to life.”
Based at Brixham, in the laboratory that years later would effectively be given to the University by AstraZeneca, Tom also investigated the use of chemicals in agriculture, the impact of pesticides on the environment, and the search for less harmful alternatives (such as those based upon chrysanthemums). This involved extensive travel around the United States, and the forging of Environmental Protection Agency and University contacts that he now uses to support placements for Plymouth students.
Tom’s association with the University actually dates back to 1991 when he enrolled on a part-time PhD, funded by ICI, on the effects of organic chemicals and metals on the immune system of marine life. He completed it five years later under the guidance of the late Professor Margaret Manning.
“Margaret was a pioneering scientist in the field of wildlife immunology and an outstanding mentor,” Tom says. “She was President of the International Society of Comparative Immunology, and her huge contribution to the reputation of the University should not be underestimated. But spending time in the South West also gave me a perspective on the opportunities here in relation to the environment, particularly freshwater and marine.”
As the company evolved through mergers – from ICI to Zeneca and AstraZeneca – so Tom’s role shifted into the pharmaceutical healthcare sector, and he began to consider the environmental impact of medicines and the manufacturing facilities required to make them. It took him off to AstraZeneca’s R&D Headquarters near Stockholm for two years, before he moved back to the UK to become Head of Science for Environment and Health at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Two years later, he joined the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), one of Defra’s science agencies, where he advised on the environmental safety assessment of chemicals in marine and freshwater ecosystems and fisheries.
Already an Honorary Professor at Exeter and Brunel universities, Tom applied for the post of Associate Professor of Ecotoxicology at Plymouth in 2013, and three years on he has been made Professor, delivering his inaugural lecture on the subject of ‘Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals’.
“The overarching theme was that natural and synthetic hormone-mimicking chemicals are a serious challenge for protecting human and wildlife health,” he says. “But if we invest in research to screen out the problem chemicals, we can improve things, and the evidence is there with the recovery of ospreys and otters.”
With a full teaching portfolio across undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including animal physiology and endocrinology, ethics in biology, ecotoxicology, and the use of aquatic animals in biomedical research, and a growing research presence through his lead of the Environment, Food and Biotechnology Research Group, it is remarkable that Tom still finds time for his extensive external engagement work. But, through his involvement with the government’s Expert Committee on Pesticides, his chairing of the Ecotoxicology Working Group of the NC3Rs (which works to find alternative practices for animal use in research), and his membership of scientific advisory groups to the OECD, he is still working to bring people together, raise awareness of issues, and improve understanding of those environmental roots for human health.
“I was back at the farm in August, helping to bring in the harvest with my siblings, and I realised I was listening to those same birds in the meadow,” he reflects. “And it made me think that, even though we have many environmental problems today, and some are very challenging and global, from what I’ve seen from the rivers and the sea – if we use science and technology, if we draw people together from different disciplines and the public – we can be optimistic for the future. We can make progress based on evidence and engagement.”