When Panamanian officials couldn’t determine the cause of 21 mysterious deaths in 2005, one of the scientists they turned to was Carl Verdon, N82, NG87, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Verdon’s lab, which specializes in measuring toxic metals in human urine and blood, is one of a group of elite emergency response laboratories at the CDC.
Using a method Verdon developed, one of his colleagues identified the toxicant as an industrial coolant ingredient that somehow found its way into the cough syrup each of the Panamanian victims had taken. Similarly, in 2003, when 15 children were diagnosed with acute forms of leukemia in a small town in Nevada, Verdon’s lab found elevated levels of arsenic and tungsten in the urine of many of the town’s residents.
Verdon helps run the Inorganic Toxicology Laboratory at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. The lab analyzes urine and blood samples for toxic and nutritionally relevant elements for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey as part of an extensive assessment of the U.S. population’s nutrition status and its exposure to environmental chemicals. Verdon specializes in developing ways to distinguish organic from inorganic forms of metals such as arsenic and mercury.
As a chemistry major at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Verdon became interested in nutrition after reading a Linus Pauling book on vitamin C. After graduating, Verdon worked at the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The lab’s director urged him to consider studying at Tufts. That’s when serendipity intervened. Stanley Gershoff, the nutrition school dean at the time, happened to be attending a meeting in Anaheim.
"He treated me to lunch, and he really sold me on the program," Verdon recalled. The cross-country move wasn’t the last time he would need to draw on his pioneering spirit. The members of the first class of the fledgling school were met with a number of challenges early on.
"Students had to take a lot of initiative… to get all the classes we wanted," recalled Verdon, who solved the problem by cross-registering for some classes at MIT, Brandeis and other area universities. "In retrospect, that was a good thing. I did a lot of networking."
As a post-doc at Harvard, he sequenced genes "the old-fashioned way," with electrophoresis gel, a magnifying glass and a pad of paper.
After completing a two-year clinical chemistry program at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, Verdon found himself back at Tufts at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, where, as a USDA scientist, he developed an assay to measure nitric oxide and contributed to another test that measures substances’ antioxidant potential. Known as the ORAC (Oxidative reaction absorptive capacity) test, nutritionists use the method to see how well a food or ingredient protects against free radicals. Many forms of cancer and some symptoms of aging are thought to be the result of reactions between free radicals and DNA, resulting in mutations that can disrupt the cell cycle.
The work garnered Verdon a number of job offers; he signed on with a small nutrient assessment company and moved his family of five to Atlanta in 1996. Three years later, when the struggling company floundered, Verdon turned to building web sites. When a job opened up at the CDC in 2000, he was in the right place at the right time. "I have this bootstrap mentality, and I give a lot of credit to my early education for that," he said.