Tyrone Hayes was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. Encouraged by his parents (Romeo and Susie Hayes) and inspired by the wildlife around him, hiking in Congaree Swamp, reading National Geographic Magazine, and watching the television show “Wild Kingdom”, he developed an interest in biology very early in his childhood. In particular, he was fascinated by amphibians and the influences that environmental changes have on their development, growth, and reproduction. After graduating from Dreher High School in 1985, he attended Harvard University. He graduated in 1989 after writing an honor’s thesis on the influence of temperature on larval growth, development, metamorphosis and sex differentiation in woodfrogs. He then entered the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley to obtain his PhD. For his doctoral dissertation, he examined the role of hormones in mediating developmental responses to environmental changes in amphibians. He completed his doctoral work in 1993 and began post-doctoral studies at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health and the Cancer Research Laboratories, UC Berkeley (funded by the National Science Foundation), where he examined molecular mechanisms of hormone action in amphibians. In 1994, he joined the faculty at Berkeley as an Assistant Professor.
Through his research, he began to realize that the most important environmental factors affecting amphibian development were synthetic chemicals (such as pesticides) that interact with hormones in a variety of ways to alter developmental responses. In 1998, he was appointed Associate Professor with tenure at Berkeley. By this time, his work focused on the effects of endocrine disrupting pesticides on amphibian growth, development, reproduction and immune function. In that same year, he began consulting with and conducting research for the chemical company, Novartis (which eventually became the agri-chemical giant, Syngenta Crop Protection). His laboratory showed that the herbicide atrazine (the number one selling product for Syngenta) is a potent endocrine disruptor that chemically castrates and feminizes exposed male amphibians at low ecologically relevant concentrations. The company and their contracted consultants at Ecorisk Inc. were not enthusiastic about his findings and prevented him from presenting these data at scientific meetings, publishing the data, and hindered progress to replicate/validate the data. In 2000, he resigned his consulting position with the company and published his work and further supportive findings with independent funding.
Despite controversy generated by the industry giant (attempts to finance him and keep his work under the control of the corporation and to discredit him and his work), he was promoted to full professor in 2003. Presently, his work continues to focus on the effects of pesticides on amphibians and the role of this threat in amphibian declines. Furthermore, it has become clear that the adverse effects of atrazine extend beyond amphibians. Through endocrine-disrupting mechanisms identical to those acting in amphibians, atrazine produces effects in other animals, including prostate and breast cancer and decreased fertility in laboratory rodents. These same effects are associated with atrazine exposure in humans. In addition to the scientific interests, this issue is one of environmental justice. Citizens in lower socio-economic classes and, in particular, ethnic minorities are less likely to have access to this information, more likely to be employed and live in areas where they are exposed to pesticides, less likely to have access to appropriate health care, and more likely to die from what are already the number one cancers in men in women (prostate and breast cancer, respectively), with cancer now being the number one cause of death in the US.
Industry has increased efforts to discredit his work, but my laboratory continues to examine the impacts of atrazine and other pesticides on environmental and public health. His decision to stand up and face the industry giant was not a heroic one. His parents taught him, “Do not do the right thing because you seek reward… and do not avoid the wrong thing because you fear punishment. Do the right thing, because it is the right thing.”
“If I want to raise my own children with the same philosophy, then I have to live my life in accordance with the way that I direct theirs. There was only one choice.”-Tyrone Hayes