College of LAS « Illinois

Alumni Profile

Nothing to Chance

Inspired by her sister, an LAS alumna is using science to make the world safer.

Suad Wanna Nakamura

Beds, jackets, and fast food toys based on Japanese animation characters may not seem like products harmful to children, but as the lead physiologist in the health sciences division for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Suad Wanna-Nakamura (PhD '81, physiology) knows better.

"Even with all good intentions, things go wrong," she says.

From her office in Bethesda, MD, the Lebanon-born researcher has uncovered some disturbing things about some seemingly innocuous products. Some of her findings: infants who sleep in the same bed as their parents can get crushed by an adult; cords on hooded jackets can get caught on something and choke a kid to death; and plastic Pokemon balls that split into halves fit perfectly over a small child's mouth and nose, so that there is a risk of smothering.

It's enough to make Wanna-Nakamura, the mother of three, thankful all of her children are old enough to be in college. "Sometimes you wonder how you made it through life with three kids," she says with deadpan humor.

However, it's no joke that Wanna-Nakamura's findings at the CPSC have led to the development of new safety standards for toys, clothes, and other consumer products used by millions of people.

Wanna-Nakamura spends her days making sure that the objects intended to brighten a child's life don't shorten that life instead. "It's a very rewarding job because you see the results of your work right away," Wanna-Nakamura says.

As a physiologist, she proves something is dangerous by showing how the object caused (and may again cause) injury, illness, or death.

Sometimes, Wanna-Nakamura says, "it's very sad to read these reports" on the death of a child, which is often told in a parent's own words. At that point, "it's no more an incident or report," she says, "It's a person."

Wanna-Nakamura may sift through thousands of pages of complex data—autopsies, police reports, lab and accident studies, and current scientific and medical literature—to make safety recommendations on a single product.

She loves her work, which helps sustain Wanna-Nakamura, especially when her recommendations are criticized, as they were in 1999 when she presented data showing hundreds of children had died as a result of accidental smothering from sharing a bed with an adult. The report, presented at an American Medical Association meeting in New York City, garnered a lot of attention from media outlets including ABC News, CNN, and The New York Times.

The soft-spoken researcher enjoyed the recognition, but her findings were also attacked by many who believe sharing a bed increases child-parent bonds.

"This is a very, very personal issue," Wanna-Nakamura says, "and parents don't want someone to tell them this is wrong."

At the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, Wanna-Nakamura planned on becoming an engineer, but also enjoyed studying math and physics. After earning a degree in biology, she met a visiting professor and expert in radiation therapy, Norman Frigerio, from the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Frigerio encouraged the young woman to pursue a master's at the American University in mathematical modeling, a subject that allowed her to combine a talent in many sciences into a single discipline.

Encouraged by her advisor, Frigerio, Wanna-Nakamura entered a doctoral program in physiology at the University of Illinois. In addition to having a renowned program in her field, Illinois was also where Wanna-Nakamura's sister, Salma Wanna, was studying mathematics. (Salma earned a doctoral degree from U of I.)

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Following in her older sister's footsteps was nothing new to Wanna-Nakamura—Salma had also studied physics and mathematics at the American University in Beirut.

Wanna-Nakamura, describes Salma as a brilliant woman who often told her younger sister to use a knowledge of science in service of humanity. "I know she had a lot of influence on me," Wanna-Nakamura says.

Years later, after Salma was killed by a hit-and-run driver (a UI scholarship has been established in her memory), Wanna-Nakamura questioned why and how her sister's life could be taken away in a moment. "I changed a lot after her death," Wanna-Nakamura says.

One way she changed was to become motivated to use science as a way to reduce the dangers in the world. "If there is something in your life you can control, you don't leave it to chance," she says.

By Scott Spilky
Fall 2003