Melinda D. Treadwell was in eighth grade when she discovered science. She’s been using it to try to make a difference in the world ever since.
Treadwell just finished her first week on the job as vice president of academic affairs at Antioch University New England in Keene. Her path to that post is decorated with a hunger to inspire change through policymaking and a better understanding of how science can help to improve our lives.
Born in Maine, Treadwell, 46, was raised by a military father and a mother with a background in nursing.
“My dad was always the logic, my mom was always the emotion,” she said. “But both of them taught me that who you are to the people you work with and live with and are around is more important than anything you’ll ever do.”
That upbringing led to Treadwell’s ability to balance her professional and personal lives, something that wasn’t always easy for her earlier in life because she is gay.
“I think it was a different world when I was younger,” she said, sitting in her new office at the Antioch campus on Avon Street last week.
“Some people judged me and did and said horrible things. I think people were just afraid of it and felt it was somehow a bad statement on who I was as a human being.”
Though it was difficult in her early life, today, she lives openly, without fear, and recently married her partner of nine years, Elise Morrissette. The couple now has a 3-month-old baby girl, Margo.
“I think to not be honest about who you are, you’re lying to people, and I just can’t live lies in that way, because it’s not an authentic measure of who I am,” she said.
Who she is is someone deeply dedicated to affecting the world by developing strong academic leaders.
“What brought me here specifically is the programs at Antioch are all focused on creating change agents, people who will go out into their communities and live their passions,” she said.
But it was her prowess on the basketball court that brought her to Keene.
As a 1,000-point scorer at Hermon High School in Maine, Treadwell was offered a scholarship to play hoops at Keene State College, where she graduated in 1990 with a degree in industrial safety.
Treadwell credits her eighth-grade science teacher, Elaine Jones, for instilling a love and appreciation of science in her. After writing an essay about the natural world, Jones chose Treadwell to participate in a two-week research program with the state’s department of marine resources in Boothbay Harbor, she said.
“I got to be around scientists for two weeks, and that’s what made me decide I wanted to be a scientist, and ultimately led me to Keene State and my work in toxicology,” she said.
She then went to work for what was then Lockheed Martin in Nashua, now BAE Systems, to research industrial hygiene, “measuring things you can’t see, smell or taste — how workers might get ill from exposures to industrial processes, chemicals, solvents, metals, things people work with every day, and then working with federal guidelines to make sure they were safe,” she said.
She left Lockheed in 1991 to pursue a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth College.
“I wanted to understand where those federal guidelines came from,” she said. “I was monitoring a third-shift worker one night at Lockheed, talking about why we were monitoring him, and he said, ‘I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. Will I get cancer?’ And I couldn’t answer his question.”
Her research focused on exposure to certain metals and fibers and materials like asbestos, she said.
“Dartmouth gave me the capacity to form policy,” she said.
Treadwell returned to Lockheed in 1996 as a corporate toxicologist, where she “tried to create more stringent exposure protection, not just based on federal guidelines.”
She served on federal committees and testified at U.S. Senate hearings on those topics, hoping to effect change and the creation of new, stronger standards for workers, she said.
“All my work since graduate school focused on making limits more protective, or working in the policy world,” she said.
Treadwell said that work was challenging because of the constant battle between what’s good for the economy, and what’s good for public health.
“Science never has all the answers,” she said. “I think that’s what motivated me to go into that part of education — doing exposure assessment and then engaging those students in policy advocacy, and to prepare them to go out and be decision-makers at their employers.”
Treadwell’s academic career began in 2000, when she went back to Keene State to teach courses in the college’s technology, design and safety department, where the goal was to grow the undergraduate research programs, she said.
“We had great success,” she said. “We grew a pretty aggressive program.”
After eight years of teaching, she became dean of Keene State’s School of Graduate Studies, and then interim vice president of academic affairs, she said.
Now, she takes on a similar position at Antioch, remaining part of a community where she believes goals can be accomplished.
“What’s cool about Keene and the Monadnock Region, you can feel like as an individual you can make a difference,” she said. “There’s a belief in collective impact; it happens here in this region in a way that I don’t think is common … to solve problems, create things, and leverage our resources to address things we care about.”
Although Treadwell has moved on to another college, Karen P. House, Keene State’s associate vice president for finance and planning, is thankful to have spent time with her when both served in interim positions at Keene State last year.
“She’s an incredibly capable, very bright person, and also incredibly considerate,” House said in a telephone interview Friday. “She’s just a very, very genuine person who cares about other people, and just makes those connections and allows the collaboration to come through, and doing so in a very respectful way.
“She’s got a great sense of humor, just a practical, down to earth person, and I have a great deal of respect for her.”
House is grateful that Treadwell remains in the region.
“Certainly I wish her the best, and obviously Antioch has made a wonderful hire, and I feel confident there will be even deeper collaborations between Keene State and Antioch because she’s there.”
For Treadwell, it truly feels like home.
“I’ve never felt so loved and welcomed as I have coming back to this community,” she said. “I can honestly say it’s been amazing, to not have to live half a life, but a full private life, a full public life, and have people accept both of those at the same time.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services