BLUE HILL – Early last week and despite feeling under the weather, Susan Shaw started her day at the Marine Environmental Research Institute probing the mouth of a dead harbor seal pup.

The pup had been stranded the day before on Little Deer Isle and died overnight. Rescue specialists from the College of the Atlantic recovered the body and dropped it off at Shaw’s lab that morning. Pointing to the pup’s toothless gums, Shaw declared the pup just a few days old and badly undernourished.

“This pup is skin and bones. There is no fat whatsoever,” Shaw said.

What caused the pup to become separated from its mother and her fat-building supply of milk will never be known, but Shaw had a suspicion: a neurological disorder caused by an accumulation of man-made chemicals in the seal’s tissues.

An environmental toxicologist, Shaw has been studying the buildup of industrial chemicals in seals and other marine mammals along the Maine coast for several decades.

Her cutting-edge work has won her renown in the scientific community and the attention of the general public, whether it is testifying before the Maine Legislature about the dangers of a widely used flame retardant or diving near the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to explore its impact on marine life.

This month, Shaw will receive the Gold Medal award from the Society of Women Geographers. There have been only 18 other recipients of the society’s most prestigious award in its 85-year history, including aviator Amelia Earhart, primatologist Jane Goodall, anthropologist Margaret Mead and archaeologist Mary Leakey.

Also this month, at its annual Rachel Carson awards ceremony, the National Audubon Society will name Shaw “Woman of the Gulf” for her work at the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“People around the world know her work,” said friend and colleague Kurunthachalam Kannan, a research scientist at the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the State University of New York at Albany.

Shaw came to scientific research relatively late in life — she received her doctorate at age 55 — and her work in marine toxicology resulted from several career twists and turns.

She grew up in Texas and has had an adventurous streak all her life. As a child, she rode horses bareback and earned a reputation as a risk-taker. In high school, she was a champion high-platform diver.

She studied languages and film at the University of Texas before moving to New York for a master’s degree in documentary film from Columbia University. For the next decade, she made documentaries, including one based on the painting “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.

But Shaw developed a violently allergic reaction to the formaldehyde-based chemicals used in film processing, and then became interested in the natural food movement. At the time, Rachel Carson’s writings about the impact of synthetic pesticides on the environment were capturing public notice.

When the documentary film industry began to shift to California, Shaw returned to Columbia, this time to study how chemicals — such as those used in film processing — affect health.

“I started worrying about it,” said Shaw.

Photographer Ansel Adams heard about her work and enlisted her to write a book.

Shaw said Adams was alarmed by health problems such as nasal cancer and nervous system disorders that were cropping up in a new generation of photographers who were rediscovering daguerreotype and other photographic processes that use platinum salts and other toxic chemicals.

“It was a real occupational hazard,” Shaw said.

In 1983, her book “Overexposure: Health Hazards in Photography” was published.

By then, Shaw had decided to go for her doctorate and became immersed in AIDS-related research. But she struggled to perform lab work in a hazmat suit, and her AIDS-research project eventually fell apart.

Ordered by her adviser to take a break, Shaw moved to Maine for the summer and read newspaper accounts about mysterious seal die-offs. Testing had found high levels of toxic man-made chemicals in their tissues.

“No one knew if there was a connection” between the chemicals and their deaths, she said.

Finding out became Shaw’s new mission.

She set up a nationwide voluntary tissue collection and analysis network. It soon became apparent that marine mammals, which feed at the top of the food chain, had levels of toxic chemicals high enough to qualify them as hazardous waste, Shaw said.

“I was completely appalled,” said Shaw.

Twenty years later, she has amassed a bank of more than 1,000 tissue samples from seals from the Gulf of Maine and other locations, as well as a body of research linking high levels of synthetic chemicals such as flame retardants and pesticides to suppressed immune systems in marine animals and humans.

Funded largely by private donors, she opened the Marine Environmental Research Institute, which is housed in a renovated 19th-century building on Blue Hill’s waterfront.

The institute, which employs nine people, includes research and educational facilities and operates a volunteer watershed monitoring project. It is also part of the Northeast Region Stranding Network, which rescues and rehabilitates stranded marine animals.

The institute includes a library open to the public and a touch tank housing several unusual blue-tinted lobsters donated by local lobstermen.

During the past year, she has been involved with a long-term study of the impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the chemicals used to disperse it, as part of a 10-member federally appointed group of scientists.

That is how she wound up diving into a murky plume of dispersed oil last spring that was thick with the carcasses of dead marine life. She has returned several times, most recently in March, when she found oil percolating 6 inches deep in the sand along the shore.

But her focus remains on the Gulf of Maine’s harbor seals, which continue to have high levels of PCB and DDT in their bodies 40 years after those chemicals were banned.

Arlene Blum, a fellow recipient of the Gold Medal in 1984 for her mountaineering feats, was one of several members of the elite Society of Women Geographers who nominated Shaw for the award. Blum said Shaw is notable both for her scientific work and her public advocacy.

“Susan is an excellent scientist who cares passionately about the natural world and making it a safer place,” said Blum.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]