Environmental Factor, April 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS and NTP Formally Welcome Birnbaum as Director
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) formally welcomed their new leader, Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., on March 13 with a morning installation ceremony and an "Afternoon of Science" of distinguished lecturers. Guests at the installation ceremony included NIH Acting Director Raynard Kington, M.D., Ph.D., and other NIH officials, U.S. Congressman David Price, Ph.D., NIEHS and NTP advisory and scientific board members, friends, family and Institute employees.
The ceremony was held in the Rodbell Auditorium at NIEHS, which was filled to capacity. It was by turns symbolic and inspirational, light-hearted and humorous, and profoundly moving.
The highlight of the day was the formal swearing-in of Birnbaum by Kington. However, as Birnbaum and the other speakers made clear, the ceremony was also deeply infused with symbolism - an event marking the appointment of the first woman and first toxicologist to hold the position of director in the Institute's 43-year history and a reassessment of the direction NIEHS will take in the months and years ahead.
The event was held as the vernal equinox approached, during Women's History Month and just before the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology. With rain falling heavily outside, Birnbaum observed, "The drought here at NIEHS has ended." As she presented her vision for the Institute, Birnbaum pointed to new opportunities and the significant advances in environmental health science research and translation she hopes NIEHS and NTP will make.
After taking her oath of office, Birnbaum thanked her guests and introduced her family. "It is truly an honor to serve as the Director of the NIEHS and the NTP," she said. "This is a very special day for me, and it's even more special because so many of my family members, friends and colleagues are here to share this occasion with me." Seated in the audience were her mother, husband, David, two daughters, and a host of friends and colleagues from her careers at NIEHS, NTP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Birnbaum spoke of her personal quest for equilibrium between the personal and professional -"I try to have some fun everyday" - and her optimism that America today is indeed experiencing the rise of "a national movement for positive and constructive change" in the nation's relationship with the environment. As she reminded the audience that "we all need to make the whole [of NIEHS and public health in general] bigger than the sum of the parts," she reiterated her dedication to comprehensive translational research, "open communication and transparency," and "empowering those who work for me and with me" at what she described as "the world's premier environmental health research organization."
"There is no better time than now," Birnbaum said, to tease out "the more subtle actors" in disease processes and discover "more ways to share our science" nationally and globally. In her quest for inclusion, she promised to promote new and renewed relationships with sister institutes and centers at NIH, other governmental agencies, universities, advocates and the general public.
In their remarks, Kington, Price, and master of ceremonies and former NTP Associate Director and Environmental Health Perspectives Editor-in-Chief George Lucier, Ph.D., looked to Birnbaum's past and future with comments about her qualifications for her leadership role. They also referred to her ability to balance her roles as a leader, mother, scientist, wife, citizen and grandmother - and the way her infectious humor helps put the gravitas of science and leadership into perspective.
The ceremony concluded with a performance by her daughter, New York actress Lisa Birnbaum. The young performer balanced her statement that "my mom is a role model for women and people everywhere" with a light-hearted little girl's dedication - "This is for you, Mommy." Relying solely on her vocal range, she then delivered an impressive rendition of the theme song from "The Man of La Mancha," inspiring the audience "to dream the impossible dream" - and leaving several in the audience struggling to hold back their tears.