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Friends and Colleagues Honor Wilson

By Eddy Ball
May 2009

Wilson enjoyed the spirit of the occasion as he donned the top cop hat Kunkel had borrowed for his routine from one of the Institute's security officers.
Wilson enjoyed the spirit of the occasion as he donned the “top cop” hat Kunkel had borrowed for his routine from one of the Institute's security officers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

An exuberant Birnbaum was the first -- but certainly not the last -- speaker to comment on Wilson's energy and dedication to his multiple roles at NIEHS.
An exuberant Birnbaum was the first — but certainly not the last — speaker to comment on Wilson's energy and dedication to his multiple roles at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Sassaman, who retired in 2006, joked about being the representative of the old guard at NIEHS --.
Sassaman, who retired in 2006, joked about being the representative of the “old guard” at NIEHS — the visionaries who led the Institute with former Directors David Rall, M.D., Ph.D., and Ken Olden. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Kunkel, dressed in lab coat and one of the many hats Wilson has worn in his career, played his friend as physician.
Kunkel, dressed in lab coat and one of the many “hats” Wilson has worn in his career, played his friend as physician. He quipped, however, that Wilson may need to brush up on his skills before sticking needles into patients again. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Suk joined in the spirit of the roast as he goaded Wilson about the latter's formal dress
Suk joined in the spirit of the roast as he goaded Wilson about the latter's formal dress. Suk was Wilson's loyal colleague during the Institute's challenging transition. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Packenham, center, conveyed Johnson-Thompson's assessment of Wilson as a real genuine human being.
Packenham, center, conveyed Johnson-Thompson's assessment of Wilson as “a real genuine human being.” Both women expressed their appreciation for Wilson's support of their efforts to expand opportunities in science education. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Friends and colleagues from NIEHS and beyond gathered on April 6 to honor NIEHS Principal Investigator (PI) Samuel Wilson, M.D.(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/lsb/dnarna/index.cfm), for his scientific and leadership contributions to the Institute. They came together for a program of tributes by colleagues that ranged from heart-felt expressions of respect and appreciation to light-hearted jest and parody. Afterwards, they joined their former leader, colleague and collaborator for refreshments and conversation.

The event was hosted by NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/director/index.cfm), who succeeded Wilson at the helm of NIEHS in January 2009. At that time, Wilson, who had served as NIEHS acting director since August 2007, decided to step away from his role as deputy director, a position he had held since joining NIEHS in 1996, to devote more time to his work as head of the NIEHS DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group.

Birnbaum set the tone for the homage to Wilson by citing his many accomplishments, such as developing the genetic susceptibility initiative at NIEHS, boosting children's and minority health programs, and promoting community outreach by grantees. She thanked her predecessor for his dedication to the integrity of NIEHS and described him as an “unbelievably gracious” colleague who helped her make a smooth transition to her new position.

Former NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Anne Sassaman, Ph.D., returned from her semi-retirement to add her notes of appreciation and praise to the chorus of voices paying homage to Wilson. She also read comments from NIEHS Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D., whose current duties as head of the new school of urban public health at the City University of New York prevented him from attending in person. She quoted Olden, who recruited Wilson to NIEHS, as writing of his colleague, “I've never known anyone as devoted to NIH and NIEHS... a completely unselfish nature.”

Even before he joined NIEHS, Wilson had touched the lives and careers of NIEHS PI Tom Kunkel, Ph.D.(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/lmg/dnarf/index.cfm), former PI Ben Van Houten, Ph.D., now at the University of Pittsburgh, and Bill Suk, Ph.D. the acting deputy director under Wilson and currently director of the NIEHS Center for Risk and Integrated Sciences. Each of the three punctuated their praises for Wilson as investigator and visionary leader with gentle jabs about his style and fashion preferences.

Representing the Division of Intramural Research (DIR), Kunkel took the humor of the event to another level with a routine that kept Wilson and the audience laughing nearly non-stop for ten minutes. After praising his long-time friend as “one of the best scientists I've ever known,” Kunkel wore a series of silly hats in a slap-stick running commentary on the many roles Wilson played during his career at NIEHS.

Standing in for absent associates, were NIEHS Office of Human Research Compliance Director Joan Packenham, Ph.D., and NTP Deputy Program Director for Policy Mary Wolfe, Ph.D. Packenham read a letter from former NIEHS Director of Education and Biomedical Research Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., who combined her words of praise and gratitude with a quip about Wilson's “poker face.” Wolfe presented the man of the hour with a plaque of appreciation on behalf of NTP and conveyed best wishes from her colleagues and NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D.

Before turning the program over to Wilson, Birnbaum presented him with a plaque of appreciation from NIEHS. Wilson ended the event with remarks about the importance of the NIEHS, which he described as “way beyond any other institute at NIH.” He concluded, “It has been an honor to serve the American people by working here at NIEHS,” promoting the Institute's mission “to protect human health and prevent disease.”

During the reception, Van Houten, center, talked with former NIEHS colleagues, PIs Perry Blackshear, M.D., D.Phil., left, and Traci Hall, Ph.D., right.
During the reception, Van Houten, center, talked with former NIEHS colleagues, PIs Perry Blackshear, M.D., D.Phil., left, and Traci Hall, Ph.D., right. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The man of the hour, center, enjoyed quality reception time with Suk, left, and Blackshear. NTP Geneticist Jack Bishop, Ph.D., and Packenham talked in the background, left.
The man of the hour, center, enjoyed quality reception time with Suk, left, and Blackshear. NTP Geneticist Jack Bishop, Ph.D., and Packenham talked in the background, left. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)



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