The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Environmental Terrorism with Maggie Toussaint



Fiona - 
Today, ThrillWriters, we're chatting about environmental terrorism with Maggie Toussaint who is writing her sci-fi novels under the pen name Rigel Carson.



Maggie, I just finished G-1 a Kindle Scout winner that came out with Kindle Press. First, congratulations! Second, you normally don't write science fiction what about this story called you away from your usual plotline?

Maggie - 
Good morning, Fiona. Thanks for having me here. Yes, G-1 is a departure from my normal mystery and suspense novels. I wanted to write a story that reflected my education and work experience, along with my writing ability.


Fiona - 
Would you give us some information about your scientific background?

Maggie - 
I am classically trained as a scientist. I’ve worked in several different science fields at government facilities as a contract scientist. In each situation, I worked for one or more PhDs, so I can’t claim ownership of any of the projects. (Think Worker Bee when you think of me.) I’ll share a bit about these opportunities and you can take it from there.


My expertise is more in the research and development side of science. At first, I was on the lower rungs of the scientific ladder, then as I had more experience and a higher degree, I wrote proposals for projects that my big boss wanted to do, ordered the materials, set the project up, ran it, scheduled additional labor when needed, coordinated with other departments and off site investigators, closed out the project, collected and managed the data, and often wrote the first draft of our findings for my PhD boss. I also went to various research symposia with large posters and fielded questions from my peers.

My first scientist job was at a government facility where I had to have a background check and a security clearance to get in the front door. My job was in the Industrial Hygiene department, which basically meant I was part of a crew that monitored personnel and environmental health and safety at this site. I’d rather not say what the product was or where the facility was on the internet. Any time you want to get together and swap stories over a beer, I can tell you about the “plant.”

Following this job, I married and relocated when my husband, who was a government employee, got promoted to the Washington Headquarters Office. I landed a job at Fort Detrick in Maryland doing chemical extractions on soils. Our job was to identify new products to put through chemical trials for antitumor properties. During the course of my employment, the team I was part of identified several candidate drugs. I’m not sure if those products made it to market, but I decided to work at a job that didn’t involve carcinogens while we started a family. One item of note was that they named one of the new products after me: Maggiemycin. You can google it and see my name on some of the papers. Maggiemycin didn’t make it to market, but it is still something new that we discovered.

After the kids were born, I got my Master’s degree in environmental science and landed another science job, this time in Aquatic Toxicology. I worked at Fort Detrick again in a sister organization to USAMRIID, which you may remember from the Hot Zone book and movie about Ebola. My group had nothing to do with Ebola! We were interested in ways to monitor drinking water safety for soldiers. I worked with this team of PhDs and Army officers for nearly a dozen years, and we made some amazing discoveries.

So, I’ll digress a little bit into “lite” chemistry. Water is a powerful solvent. Many chemicals dissolve wholly in it or in some small measure. With the advent of high tech and copious industries, discharges were not initially monitored and policed as they should have been. Groundwater and surface water around the world is often contaminated with something that shouldn’t be there. For instance, dry cleaning chemicals contain something called trichloroethylene which at certain levels is soluble in water and harmful to people and other living things.

The people at the top would decide how and what chemicals we would study, sometimes based on where the troops would deploy. We mainly studied organic chemicals. The cool part of my job was that I worked in a fishery. Yes, we used teeny tiny fish to help monitor what was in the water. We would often maintain a population of 5,000 to 10,000 fish at any one time and there was a lot of animal husbandry involved to keep the colony going and not genetically isolated. Our testing was for both long term effects (cancers) as well as short term effects.






Anyway, one of the inventions of this group was a mobile biomonitoring trailer outfitted with aquaria just like we had in the lab. One application involved juvenile bluegill fish. We were able to monitor the electronic coughs of fish when certain irritants (chemicals) were present in the water in real time. We deployed these at various sites around the country to test the efficacy and found that we could reproduce the same results as in our lab. The lead scientists presented this information in symposia and in journals.

Then 9/11 happened. Many cities became concerned about their drinking water safety. It is my understanding that two major metropolitan areas installed our technology and used our fish to monitor their drinking water for some time. I’m not certain if this is still ongoing because I retired from my job due to health concerns (my family is riddled with arthritis) and to focus on my oldest daughter’s upcoming wedding.

My thoughts about government scientists: we need smart people to figure stuff out. The more innovations we have, the more opportunities we have to mess up the environment or people. If all the research is done by private companies in a “for profit” mode, we’ve lost something valuable. Speaking from experience, the policy makers and budget people have a lot of power in government agencies. You have to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk to survive.


Fiona -
And how did this translate into your newest book?

Maggie - I created a scientist main character (science is my background) and gave him an impossible task - to figure out why the world's water supply is not adding up. To make matters worse, I had his mentor go down in flames earlier for a misconstrued remark about global warming.

So my scientist, Dr Zeke Landry, knows the penalty for error. He also knows water can't go away. It's part of the hydrologic cycle. Trouble is, the numbers show a different trend. He is being pressured to say the water's okay, that it is all where it is supposed to be, but it isn't.

That's when his boss decides to get him an unbiased expert to help him comb through the data, a top of the line android.

Fiona -
How plausible is a storyline such as this, given the systems and science that we have in place now?

Maggie - 
I believe this is a very plausible storyline. Now, I've been out of the research world for over 15 years and out of the academic world for longer than that, but I spoke with a number of scientists, engineers, and science fiction authors as I was developing the premise. What was intriguing for me was that this is a mystery set in the future. I love puzzles, and I believe someone (or some huge entity) could siphon off the world's drinking water over a few decades with the long term goal of global domination. Sure we can keep pulling water from the oceans, but that will create other problems. If freshwater is lacking, we also have arid conditions globally, and that's what I made happen in G-1. It becomes a domino effect of no water, no food, global terror. 


You asked about the systems we have in place. Countries have scientists and systems in place to monitor reservoir levels and freshwater impoundment levels. In fact, there are many municipalities and states even that have very detailed rules over water usage. That means each entity or stakeholder may only use so much or they will be in violation of the agreement and incur serious penalties. 

Let's look specifically at Georgia. Water in upstate Georgia flows down to the sea in either the Altamaha River basin or the Savannah River basin. New industries can't just build and use water without all kinds of permissions and monitoring. Plus, old industries that were grandfathered in are dealing with pollution issues and abatement. The point of this is that what comes downstream to us on the coast determines the economy of our fishing industry. Drought upstate can affect our estuaries and make them too salty for marine life. And that's just the in state effect. Water from Altanta also flows out of state and affects other people, places, and things. Industry down where I am located is caught in a stranglehold already because of water usage. We used to have natural artesian water bubbling up on our barrier islands and the coast. No more. It's gone. The levels in the groundwater aquifers are dropping as well as having saltwater intrusion. 

Water availability is a current problem and though it isn't as severe as portrayed in G-1, it won't take long to get to that point, no matter the safeguards or lawsuits. One of the things that was hounded into me in college is that our natural resources are finite. We have to take care of them. 

Fiona -
Environmental terrorism isn't a new concept. In history we see land being destroyed by sewing the ground with salt etc. to make it useless for growing food. There are things that can be done to affect an area over time - and some things which are immediate. Let's look at look at slow quiet destruction first - what could an evil group such as Chameleon do now - invasive species and the like...

Maggie - 
Sure, sowing the land with salt is very detrimental to most plants. Given the ecosystems of the coast, there is a gradient of plant life that can tolerate high salt input, and the diversity of plant life is small, comparatively. 

We already have invasive species problems on the coast. Tallow plants, kudzu, and others quickly outgrow native species and don't provide food for our native insects. Invasive species not only take away space from our plants, but they are very aggressive growers and disrupt our food chain.

The environment works much as our legal system is supposed to work, with checks and balances. When something gets out of whack, then there becomes both an excess and a deficit. Whatever was discriminated against, will have a hard time gaining momentum to find its place in the food chain again. That's general ecology which even kids should recognize. But when we put chemicals on our lawn say in Atlanta, we don't think about them harming fish way downstream.

With regard to the Chameleons in my book G-1, they are up to a lot of dirty tricks. First, they stockpiled water and food. Their intent was never to starve the world, only to get its attention and seem to be the good guys solving the world's problems. 

In the story world, the ground is so arid from water shortages that all fresh food is grown in government controlled agridomes. The Chameleons unleash locusts in the agridomes, locusts that are souped up and genetically engineered to eat faster. They chose not to ruin the agridomes because they knew they would need them later, but they made food a pinch point. People with no food are dangerous and desperate. We've seen that over and over again in our history. Given those conditions, a secret society with a global conspiracy end game is a possibility. Maybe its because I'm a mystery author that I see this possibility. I've always believed most of us peons don't have any idea of how the world is run. Who's to say there isn't a group orchestrating things right now?

Fiona - 
So that's long term, probably will never catch the bad guy stuff - what about short term? Setting off a nuke, obviously. But what other "hold the world hostage" environmental terrorist fears are there and what kinds of things are governments doing to prevent them?

Maggie - 
Suffice it to say that a lot of genetic engineering and growth of harmful viruses and lethal agents occurs right now in the name of science. 

When I worked at Fort Detrick, there was a scientist there who was accused of sending anthrax through the mail. Remember that? It was all over the news. Postal workers started wearing gloves to handle the mail. Special air filtration was deemed necessary for post offices. That was just one example, but the mail was bogged down for a very long time. Politicians and other industry leaders rarely open their mail any more. One single thing like this has a huge domino effect. 

Let's look at airport screening after 911. They first screened for metal to keep weapons off the plane. Then liquids were used to create a threat, so now liquids are monitored on planes. Now, with 3-D printers, people can make anything out of plastic. Pretty soon, we won't be able to carry anything with us on a trip. 

I firmly believe basic human nature is to want power, autonomy, and authority. With different philosophies and religions as driving forces, groups will continue to fight each other for domination. Think about the news. We still see suicide bombers. We see smart bombs. There are ways to discharge dangerous substances through the actions of a few. 

It is possible, and it happens today on a small scale. So far, nothing huge has taken down a city or a government. Let's hope it doesn't. That's what I like about science fiction. It gives you an idea of what can happen. And it should be a wake up call for people to take notice of how others are conducting themselves. Again, bioterrorism is a reality that many of us don't like to think about. I'm grateful for the men and women of our country, and others, who work to keep these kind of attacks squashed.

Fiona - 
As a scientist, what piece of advice can you give writers who are developing a plotline around environmental terror?

Maggie -
One of the things I would like to say to writers who write about terrorism is that there are unexpected consequences. Another writer I know who used bombs in her story is now pulled aside for "extra" screening every time she flies. Because of this, that author said to me that she believes there are ways your computer searches for information and even your email subjects can be flagged to put you on a government watch list. This author jokes about it, and she's the nicest person I ever met, but still, that kind of labeling can occur. 

Secondly, and this will fly in the face of the above consequence, be sure you report enough of the facts to sound credible but also don't present enough information that your book becomes a recipe for global evil. Also remember, all actions have consequences. Writers have responsibility for their words.

Fiona - 
It is a tradition on ThrillWriting that we ask you to share your favorite scar story or harrowing experience. Will you indulge us?

Maggie - 
My first trip to the dermatologist as a grown-up was in conjunction with my husband. We had both spent hours outside daily throughout our lives and it was time to see if there was any damage. Each of us had a few minor places that needed to be taken care of, but the dermatologist did a double take at the place on my leg. Because of the color and shape, he predicted that it was a melanoma.

Talk about heart-stopping! I froze emotionally at that cancer word I knew so well from my cancer research. My first thought as I looked down at my leg was that I didn’t want any part of cancer. Get it out was my internal cry. The doctor was of the same mindset, so he excised the spot and sent it to pathology. I went home a changed person. I think my husband bought me my first big-brimmed hat that very day. The pathology report confirmed melanoma and we were told to report back to the office for another surgery.

At this point it felt like a dream that was happening to someone else. The doctor said that there was a protocol of how much and how deep he had to go based on the path report. Bottom line, he cut more out of my thigh, even way beyond the original spot. The next path report showed he’d gotten it all, but now I bear a football shaped scar that’s lily white. It has never seen the sun, and it never will.

This was a wakeup call for me. Growing up in sunny coastal Georgia, we spent all of our summers, weekends, and afternoons outside in the rivers or creating treehouses. I spent endless teenage days reading books on the beach in the years when sunscreen was but a glimmer in someone’s eye. Parents today are lucky to have sunscreens and I hope the kids of today will grow up with less skin cancers
.

 Fiona -
Our best wishes for your continued good health. 

I'm going to give you the final word, Maggie. What would you like to tell us?

Maggie -
My message, indeed my theme for the entire Guardian of the Earth series, is that our planet is special. We should be cognizant of the miracle of life here and we should become stewards of the environment. It isn't enough to give up hair spray to save the ozone layer which in turn is necessary to filter sun rays to a beneficial level. Everything we do has consequences. Sure we're concerned with our everyday lives, who isn't? But we have to look out for the Big Picture, the survival of the human race. 

Science fiction has stimulated this kind of thinking for me. From Star Trek through Star Wars through shows like Firefly and more. We may feel we are alone and unique in the universe, but that may not be the case. Our everyday lives are impacted today by what happens around the world. Just look at manufacturing, for instance, or foods. The labels on products show the countries of origin. We are no longer isolated like pioneers. We need to act accordingly. And now, I'll step off my soap box and thank Fiona for having me here to present my thoughts about environmental terrorism and to mention my new book G-1, which is the first in my Guardian of Earth series, writing as Rigel Carson.

Fiona - 
Thanks Maggie.

You can stay in contact with Maggie/Rigel Carson on -


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Cheers,


14 comments:

  1. Thank you for having me here, Fiona. This is the first time I've shared so much of my science background online. I hope others find it of interest and aren't having flashbacks to ecology class. You really knew how to draw it out of me!

    Maggie Toussaint/Rigel Carson

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  2. Since I have some science in my background, I understand basically most of what you wrote about. I hope readers who have an interest in science will read this. I'll say, others may take a pass.
    The part about water is something many citizens of our world do not understand. Here in Texas, the cry is always "we're running out of water! There won't be any for future generations!" And these people literally believe water is disappearing. If someone speaks of this to me in some discussions, I try as best as I can that, no, the earth is not running out of water. The same amount is still here on the earth as was in the beginning. It's just gone elsewhere, or it's in a different form. However, this usually makes eyes glaze over, so I drop the subject.
    We are in a situation in Texas in which we should conserve and find ways to collect water better than the human-created Highland Lakes--where not enough rain falls to fill those to infinity. This is only one of many examples.
    I hope others will read your interview!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Celia,

      I knew with your science teacher background you would get the point of this blog. Drinking water is a big issue and so many people take it for granted. I think, in general, people in arid states have a little more of a sense of the urgency of paying attention to water. Oftentimes, even on the east coast, when we are in drought mode, outside watering is on alternate days, with penalties for not following the rules. Imagine if this became a way of life around the world. There would be a LOT of fighting over water issues. We need water to survive.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and to share the load of helping people to understand about water and the hydrologic cycle.

      Maggie/Rigel Carson

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  3. Hi, Maggie! I loved reading about your science background. And yes, is funny terrorism is linked with your name. Congratulations on the book. And a few hugs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Vicki,

      I very much appreciate your stopping by Thrill Writing to learn more about my focus on water issues. It came as something of a surprise to me that I felt so strongly about water. I'm not one to charge after a cause, and I avoid talking about politics and religion, because there's rarely a "winner" in those discussions - more often it's hurt feelings. I've had jobs in various biology and chemistry careers, and in each instance, water played a major role. Water is the universal solvent and is ubiquitous to life.

      Hugs back at you!

      Maggie/Rigel Carson

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  4. Fascinating interview, Maggie! Your premise is really interesting. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Karen,

      Your comment made me smile. I imagine my parents are glad I'm finally getting another use out of my college education! I hope you enjoy the book. Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment.

      Maggie Toussaint/Rigel Carson

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  5. What an interesting blog post. I keep learning new things about you, even though I've known you for years. Water is again in the news, only this time in California. G-1's premise doesn't seem to be too far fetched, though the reasons/methods might be different than in our reality. Still, it's scary, and water is something we do take for granted. I don't think we should.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Polly,

      Yes, I'm peeling back a few more layers of the onion and hoping that I'm remembering things right! Water is indeed an undervalued commodity in our land of free flowing taps. Even though it appears there is an abundance, our level of rainfall (and how we recharge our surface water and groundwater) is highly variable. That was my intent with G-1 - that folks might become more cognizant of the resources they use. Thanks for stopping in at Thrill Writers.

      Maggie/Rigel Carson

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  6. Replies
    1. Hi Patti,

      I appreciate the visit and hope that your eyes didn't glaze over. I'd forgotten how passionate I am about this topic! Have a great day and thanks for the comment!

      Maggie/Rigel Carson

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    2. Thanks, Patti! I'm so glad you stopped by and commented on the post. I appreciate your time and attention.
      Maggie/Rigel Carson

      Delete
  7. Maggie, You're obviously very intelligent, considering your education, yet you're so down to earth, I find it easy to relate to you. There should be more people like you! And, when I think about water I do wonder how healthy mine is, considering the pipes in our house are almost as old as I am. Still, it seems nothing is completely safe anyway.

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    Replies
    1. Morgan,

      It would be relatively easy to check your drinking water for contaminants. Most water labs will do basic screening at a fairly low cost. What might your concerns be? Lead or copper? Or a more biologic concern ( as in something growing in the biofilm)? Either way a testing lab could check for you. Most people with wells should check their drinking water quality periodically anyway, so I'm glad you mentioned this. All you have to do to find a water testing company nearby is to google it. Or you could call your local Health Department and ask who they might recommend. All municipalities are required by law to test for contaminants at least yearly, and the results are often in the newspaper.

      All right, I'll hush on this before I scare people off again.

      Thanks for coming by, and even more thanks for calling me intelligent. Its a real kick!

      Maggie/Rigel Carson

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