Grace Brush, a scientist well-known for her work on the pre-Colonial ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, recently received the prestigious Mathias Medal.
Named for former Maryland Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias—who is widely credited with launching a federal-state partnership to restore the Bay— the medal is presented to scientists whose work has had a significant impact on policies affecting the Chesapeake. It has been awarded only four times since its creation in 1990.
A professor in the Whiting School of Engineering, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, Brush is the first paleoecologist and the first woman to win the award.
She pioneered studies that used the presence of plant pollen, microscopic organisms and other substances in the Bay’s sediments to track changes in the Chesapeake and its watershed.
Brush’s studies have provided the basis for much of the early understanding of how and when the forests surrounding the Bay were first cleared, and how resultant shifts in sediment loads and water chemistry changed the Chesapeake and its ecosystem.
“When policymakers attempt to compare the Bay of the past with the Bay of the future,” said Maryland Sea Grant Director Jonathan G.Kramer, “they turn to the work of Grace Brush.”
He called her work pivotal because it has detailed the story of how the Chesapeake Bay has responded to human settlement, beginning with the clearing of the region’s forests and continuing right up to the impacts of sewage treatment plants.
Ted Poehler, vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, noted that Brush has set an example for women in science. “Back in 1956, when she got her doctorate, the number of women in the engineering fields was quite small. The women who did enter the sciences were more likely to enter biology or chemistry.”
Researchers like Brush were really “pioneers,” he said. “It was pretty lonely.”
Brush began her career working as a technician for the Geological Survey of Canada and later earned her doctorate in biology from Harvard University.
She came to Johns Hopkins in 1973 as a research scientist and served as the administrator of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Research Program from 1976–78.
Brush has won awards for her teaching and scientific contributions, including the George E. Owen Teaching Award in 2001 and an Individual Award for Leadership in Environmental Stewardship from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.