When Ken Geiser was teaching urban planning at Tufts University in the 1980s, he was good at giving advice to students: figure out what you’re really good at, listen to your heart, make a difference in the world. The problem was that he wasn’t good at taking his own advice. That all changed in 1984 when a gas leak in Bhopal, India killed at least 3,800 people and harmed thousands.
He visited the pesticide plant in Bhopal and witnessed the devastation on thousands of lives and the environment caused by methyl isocyanate gas and other toxic chemicals.
He asked, “What can I do?” And the people responded: “Make sure this never happens again.” This turning point in Geiser’s life launched his career as an activist and leader of change. “I knew that from then on, I would use my life to make chemistry safer,” said Geiser, professor of Work Environment, who is retiring from UMass Lowell after 23 years.
He spoke at his retirement celebration on April 26 to more than 120 colleagues, alumni, students and friends who recognized his legacy as an educator, author, researcher and activist. The event raised money to establish the Ken Geiser Endowed Fund for Global Sustainability.
“Ken Geiser is a leader in his field, a scholar, activist and a good citizen on campus and around the world,” said Dean of the School of Health and Environment Shortie McKinney. “His research and teaching make a tangible difference by protecting the lives of people and the environment.”
Geiser moved to the University in 1990 because he believed that it was an incubator for new ideas, a place where he could make an impact locally and throughout the world.
“When I started at the University, a new wave of faculty was coming here,” he said. “People believed in what they were doing and were determined to improve society. I knew that this was a context that I could grow in. This was a magical place for me.”
His growth in 23 years spans teaching and inspiring students, advocating for environmental causes and negotiating laws that promoted innovation in companies while reducing use of toxic materials. One of his major accomplishments was negotiating one of the world’s most successful laws for making manufacturing safer and more competitive – the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA). From 1990 to 2003, he served as director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute – the education arm of TURA that trains company representatives how to reduce toxic chemical use.
But it’s the impression he made on students that may be his greatest achievement.
“By bringing his personal passion, insight and experiences into the classroom, Ken taught us to incorporate our own passions and values for safety and health into our everyday lives,” said Susan Hipsky, a senior student in the Master of Science Program in Cleaner Production and Pollution Prevention who also works at Cabot Corporation. “And if we did that already, he challenged and encouraged us to inspire the people we know at home and work to do the same.”
In special recognition of Ken Geiser’s contributions to the University, UMass Lowell established the Ken Geiser Endowed Fund for Global Sustainability. Gifts, in his honor, are still being accepted. Make an online donation.