Arlene Blum: A Trailblazer in Every Sense of the Word

Every year, WICTO is proud to host a variety of successful individuals from various backgrounds, from academia and industry to environmental policy. However, very rarely does one encounter a speaker who not only brings a wealth of experience from these fields, but also spent 10 months trekking across the Himalayas, predicted molecular structures based on stringing colored beads on wires, and continues to work to reduce of the exposure of the world’s populace to harmful chemicals. Dr. Blum is a biophysical chemist, world-class mountaineer, chemical safety advocate, science communicator, author, environmentalist, and mother, not to mention an engagingly witty storyteller.

Arlene Blum embodies the full definition of a trailblazer, with a long list of firsts and contributions in both research and mountaineering. She led the first all-female teams up some of the world’s highest summits, established some of the key foundational evidence for the field of protein folding, and, as a researcher at the University of California Berkeley, brought forth regulation of two cancer-causing chemicals used as flame retardants. She currently is the Executive Director the Green Science Policy Institute, which has developed a comprehensive system of organizing 80,000 chemicals into six classes of chemicals of concern. This effort is mainly to aid manufacturers, retailers, institutions, and government in their chemical-purchasing decisions.

Despite an obviously successful career, Dr. Blum does not shy away talking about struggle and tragedy. In 1970, upon being told that she could only join a climbing expedition up Alaska’s Mount Denali as a cook rather than as a climber, Arlene Blum, aged 25, decided to instead organize the first all-women ascent up the mountain. Later, she left the lab bench to climb some of the world’s highest summits, from Uganda to Afghanistan. It was while sitting on a glacier, watching ice melt, dazed after the sudden death of a fellow climber during an expedition to the Pamirs in the Soviet Union that Dr. Blum found inspiration for a method to learn about intermediates in protein folding. The death of another friend and climbing companion motivated her many years later to establish the Green Science Policy Institute to educate policy makers and purchasers about harmful substances in products from children’s wear to furniture.

From her stories and photos, one realizes that what makes Dr. Blum’s journey so remarkable is not her list of accomplishments, but rather by her relentless pursuit of the things that mattered and her unwavering resilience and courage in the face of adversity. On behalf of WICTO, we thank Arlene for sharing her stories, struggles, and passion for life.

Arlene Blum is the author of two books: Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (https://www.amazon.ca/Annapurna-Womans-Place-Arlene-Blum/dp/1619026031) and Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life (https://www.amazon.ca/Breaking-Trail-Climbing-Arlene-Blum/dp/0156031167/ref=pd_sim_14_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=717DVH1D90MH2P05J9C1).

Learn more about the Green Science Policy Institute and the six classes of chemicals of concern at http://greensciencepolicy.org/ and www.SixClasses.org.

Learn more about Arlene’s adventures at www.Arleneblum.com

About womeninchemto

Women in Chemistry, Toronto Chapter (WICTO) is student-run initiative started in 2014 to promote gender diversity within the chemistry community through awareness, engagement and advocacy.