Environmental Factor, November 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Birnbaum addresses GSK women scientists
“Development is a sensitive time for exposure for any number of reasons, including rapid growth, an increased metabolic rate, active cell differentiation, a developing (programmable) immune system, poor liver metabolism, and an immature blood/brain barrier,” Birnbaum said of the developmental theory of disease. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
The photo of young scientist Linda Birnbaum, née Silber, ran in Life magazine the year before Rachel Carson published her historic critique of chemical pesticides. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., took her message of work/life balance to the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Women in Science Annual Meeting Oct. 3 in Research Triangle Park (RTP), N.C. In her keynote talk before the group, Birnbaum reassured her audience that “You Can Have It All.”
Each year, the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation hosts two annual events for Women in Science - an annual meeting in October and a conference in the spring - inviting scholars, mentors, faculty representatives and staff for a day of networking, learning, and sharing the wonders of science and the wisdom of women.
As she began her talk, Birnbaum thanked the GSK Women in Science for their efforts in providing scholarships and mentoring for female undergraduate students. The foundation has established more than $1.7 million in endowed scholarships at 29 colleges and universities across North Carolina, funded through its Women in Science Scholars Program(http://www.ncgskfoundation.org/women-in-science.html) .
Reflecting on a life fully lived
In the first part of her talk, Birnbaum told the audience of women gathered at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Conference Center in RTP, “Having it all is a very individual thing. For me, it's fulfilling my love of science, keeping involved with the community, and of course my family.” The inspirations for every aspect of her life, she added, are fun and passion - in science; in her role as daughter, mother, grandmother, and spouse; and in her commitment to religious and social community.
With a picture of herself as teenager Linda Silber, the girl scientist featured in the Dec. 8, 1961 issue of Life magazine, on the screen behind her, Birnbaum acknowledged her good fortune. “Great parents supported my interests, great teachers made it OK to be a girl and like science, great mentors gave me opportunities for growth.”
Photos of her and her family served as a backdrop, as Birnbaum traced her career through its early years at NIEHS, her 19 years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some of her many honors for her work in toxicology and public health, and her selection in December 2008 to head NIEHS, overseeing more than 1,400 federal and contract employees, as well as a budget of $800 million in 2011.
Today's passion - a conceptual shift in environmental health sciences
The core of Birnbaum's talk focused on what having it all as a scientist means to her in today's world and her passion for promoting environmental public health.
She reviewed the new disease paradigm based on the concept of the developmental origin of disease through epigenetic modification of gene expression, triggered by environmental exposures during windows of susceptibility. According to recent research, environmental exposures during times when the human body is especially sensitive to their effects, such as fetal development, childhood, and adolescence, may set the stage for disease onset in later life.
Birnbaum spoke proudly of the Institute's leadership in a broad range of new and renewed areas of interest, from endocrine disruption research and breast cancer research to work on the front lines as part of the GuLF STUDY (Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study) and other public health efforts in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. As she does in all her talks before such groups, Birnbaum, the first toxicologist to head NIEHS, recounted the achievements of the National Toxicology Program and its paradigm-shifting predictive toxicology initiative, known as Tox21.
As Birnbaum reached the conclusion of her talk, she told her audience, “We've really come a long way, women and research. It's been thrilling to be a part of it all.” Her talk ended where environmental health science and much of young Linda Silber's own passion for it really began. Birnbaum offered a tribute to another passionate woman - author and environmentalist Rachel Carson, whose dire prediction of a “Silent Spring” in 1962 may well turn out to be one reason it hasn't come true.