Donna Cragle: A legacy of excellence in research, relationships
Donna Cragle, Ph.D., a giant in the field of occupational health epidemiology, stepped away from many of her supervisory duties in 2019 to return her focus primarily to beryllium studies and worker health, the research that brought her to ORAU 38 years ago.
Cragle handed over her responsibilities as senior vice president and director of Health, Energy and Environment, a $63 million ORAU program unit with more than 200 employees and three laboratories. “Donna has made tremendous contributions to ORAU as a scientist and executive,” said ORAU President and CEO Andy Page. “She built a strong legacy of excellence, both in her research and her relationships with people, and she continues to have important work to do here in support of ORAU’s mission and its customers.” Cragle remains director of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Beryllium Testing Laboratory. She also serves as ORAU’s ombudsman, where she serves as an advocate for employees who have questions or concerns and who may not be comfortable communicating through formal organizational channels.
“An employee may have questions that aren’t the typical questions. Or, an employee may need an advocate or adviser,” Cragle said of her ombudsman role. “I’ve always tried to be an advocate for the people who work for me and help them through situations.”
Specializing in beryllium
Cragle joined ORAU as an epidemiologist after completing her doctoral degree in environmental epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She helped perfect the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (BeLPT) and developed ORAU’s capability to perform the specialized blood test used to identify workers at risk of developing chronic beryllium disease.
“ORAU, under our DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) contract, had been performing cytogenetic biodosimetry work for a number of years, and I realized that we were very good at growing lymphocytes in a sterile environment,” explained Cragle. “I asked DOE if ORAU could develop the capability to do the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test because of all the testing that needed to be done on current and former Y-12 workers. They agreed,” she added.
In 1993, the laboratory began testing Oak Ridge, Tennessee, workers, eventually leading to the initiation of a nationwide program for testing all former DOE workers. By 2020, laboratory staff expect to process about 9,000 tests annually. Incredibly, Cragle has reviewed the results of every single BeLPT test, a number well exceeding 100,000 tests over several decades.
As her career progressed at ORAU, Cragle served as a section leader, deputy director, director of the Center for Epidemiologic Research and then vice president and director of the Occupational Exposure and Worker Health program. Under her leadership, the occupational health programs grew and gained national and international recognition.
In 2014, she was named senior vice president and director of two other programs as they were consolidated and formed the program unit Health, Energy and Environment.
She oversaw projects related to public health, emergency preparedness, health communication, environmental assessments and radiation emergency medicine.
Committed to worker health
Cragle devoted her career to occupational and environmental epidemiology. “I wanted to understand whether workplace standards and environmental standards were set at appropriate levels to protect the health of workers and the public,” she said.
During her tenure, Cragle’s team created and supported several massive worker health programs, the largest being the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
(NIOSH) Radiation Dose Reconstruction Program. A $167 million contract was awarded in 2019 to ORAU and its partners to continue the work begun by ORAU in 2002 under the original contract. Cragle continues to provide leadership to the NIOSH project. ORAU reconstructs radiation doses for current and former workers in the nuclear industry who were employed by DOE. The dose reconstructions provide critical information used by the U.S. Department of Labor in adjudicating cancer claims filed under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.
Under Cragle’s leadership, ORAU has operated DOE’s National Supplemental Screening Program since its inception in 2005. It provides free nationwide medical screening for former energy workers who may have been exposed to hazardous substances at work. The screenings target certain occupational diseases, such as respiratory illnesses or cancer. They also identify general health issues such as diabetes and hypertension. More than 22,000 enrollees have signed up for free health screening.
Cragle and her team also have embraced the concepts of Total Exposure Health and geroscience. The former focuses on understanding how exposures occurring over a person’s lifetime affect the total health and well-being of the individual. The latter studies genetic, molecular and cellular processes that impact the relationship between human aging and chronic disease.
Recognized internationally as an expert occupational epidemiologist, Cragle has served on high-profile research committees, including one just after the end of the Cold War related to radiation sickness among plutonium refinery workers in Russia. Cragle also presented testimony to the U.S. Congress about mercury exposures to workers in Oak Ridge. She served on an international scientific steering committee investigating cancer risk related to exposure to specific forms of nickel. She held leadership positions with national scientific organizations, including the board of the Beryllium Health and Safety Committee.
She authored more than 35 peer-reviewed articles for professional publications. She served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, and mentored doctoral students, one of whom was Jeff Miller. After receiving his doctorate, Miller was recruited by Cragle to join ORAU, where he serves as acting director of this program.
Epidemiologist Betsy Ellis, Ph.D., and Cragle have worked together nearly from the beginning, and their four decades of collaboration have led to a significant body of research in occupational epidemiology.
Ellis describes Cragle as an astute program administrator, and Cragle’s strengths include building and maintaining a strong staff and encouraging their leadership.
“Donna is very empowering and likes to see us do well. She has faith in her staff. She likes to know what we are doing, but, beyond that, we are trusted to do our jobs and make decisions. We want to do our best and not let her down because we respect her,” said Ellis.
Over the years, Cragle has mentored several staff people, including Jennifer Hoff, Ph.D., health physicist and lead manager on the NIOSH project. “I have been extremely lucky to have had Donna as a mentor. By watching her interactions with her employees, Donna also taught me to learn about my employees: what are they good at, what makes them tick, what would challenge them. She took the time to learn my capabilities and always knew the right challenges to throw my way—even if I didn’t think I was ready for them,” Hoff said.
In addition to the influence of her professional relationships, Cragle credits her father, Raymond Cragle, Ph.D., for instilling in her a love for STEM and a desire to make a difference. He conducted animal research in Oak Ridge through a joint appointment with UT and the Atomic Energy Commission. “He was very supportive of my education,” said Cragle, thinking back to her childhood when she accompanied him to work. “When I was in college, I couldn’t even spell epidemiology, but I just kind of discovered it. It was everything I was good at: math and biology and solving puzzles. I never met a number I didn’t like.”
ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).