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NIEHS Community Remembers Terri Damstra

By Eddy Ball
February 2010

Damstra posed for this portrait in the mid-1990s toward the  end of her tenure at NIEHS.
Damstra posed for this portrait in the mid-1990s toward the end of her tenure at NIEHS. (Archive photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The environmental health sciences community lost one of its distinguished senior members Dec. 9, 2009 with the unexpected death of former NIEHS and World Health Organization (WHO) scientist Thressa (Terri) Damstra, Ph.D., at age 67. Several of her friends and colleagues planned to join Damstra's family and personal friends in a celebration of her life on Jan. 30 in Chapel Hill, where she resided at the time of her death.

In 2007, Damstra retired after serving as a senior staff member for the WHO International Programme on Chemical Safety International Research Unit working out of offices at NIEHS. Prior to that, she held several scientific and leadership positions at NIEHS during a tenure that lasted from 1973 to 1996. Under former NIEHS Directors David Rall, M.D., Ph.D., and Ken Olden, Ph.D., Damstra was a driving force in the Institute's global health initiatives and international partnerships (see text box).

When NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., learned of her former colleague's death, she wrote, "Terri had a love of life, a love of Science, and a love of NIEHS. She had a way of getting everyone to work together to achieve consensus, with everyone believing that's just what they wanted."

Asked about his experiences working with Damstra, long-time collaborator NIEHS Superfund Research Program Director William Suk, Ph.D., said, "I'm really going to miss her." Suk described Damstra as a "good friend [who] made things happen" and was capable of "putting researchers and investigators together in order to enhance the environmental health sciences worldwide," with a special impact on the health of children and women.

A native of Harkema, Friesland, in the Netherlands, Damstra immigrated to Grand Rapids, Mich. with her parents. She received a bachelor's degree from Calvin College and a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Chicago. Damstra joined NIEHS following academic appointments at her alma mater and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Damstra is survived by daughter Amelia Entingh Pearsall, son-in-law Scott Pearsall, and two grandchildren of Woburn, Mass., as well as by four brothers and many nieces and nephews, all of Michigan.

Damstra at NIEHS

Damstra's interest in global health was nurtured early in her career at NIEHS when then-Director David Rall appointed her as the Institute's Special Assistant to the Director for International Programs. She came to the position from the NIEHS Office of Health Hazard Assessment where she had been involved in analyzing, reviewing, and evaluating scientific studies dealing with the potential health effects of environmental agents.

On behalf of the federal government, the NIEHS participated in a number of international agreements involving the exchange of official scientific visits and the transfer of scientific information and assistance. Nations with which formal agreements existed at the time included Great Britain, France, Egypt, Italy, West Germany, the U.S.S.R., and Japan. The Institute also participated in exchange visits with the People's Republic of China.

Damstra combined her commitment to global health with her interests in toxicology and endocrine disruption during the course of her NIEHS and WHO careers. Although she served as acting deputy director under Rall, Damstra readily returned to her role as an international coordinator of environmental health science research and translation.

When Damstra accepted her position with WHO, she recognized the support WHO continued to receive from NIEHS. "NIEHS was a major player in setting up this program," she said. She was also grateful that the Institute agreed to provide the program's lone Interregional Research Unit office space at NlEHS.

Damstra was active in the Federal Women's Program at NIEHS and her local community. Her professional memberships included the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Neuroscience, the Neurochemistry Society, and the Association for Women in Science.

(Archival research courtesy of NIEHS Reference/Inter-Library Loan Intern Kathryn Roth)



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