Birnbaum inspires women with talks at TWU and UNC
By Eddy Ball
In March, NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was doubly honored as a role model with talks at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
Birnbaum spoke March 1 as one of three distinguished women scientists making keynote presentations before an audience of women scientists in training at the inaugural seminar of the Ann Stuart and Ray R. Poliakoff Celebration of Science series at TWU in Denton, Texas. The next day, she returned to Chapel Hill, N.C., to address a similar group of students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility, as its 2012 Women in Science speaker (see text box).
The future of environmental health
In her talk at TWU, Birnbaum focused on the evolution of NIEHS and NTP during her three years as director, and her vision for the Institute’s future as the world’s premier research center for the environmental health sciences.
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Setting the stage for a review of emerging paradigms in the understanding of environmental health and exciting new directions in research at NIEHS and NTP, Birnbaum challenged her audience to think divergently about the role of environment in human health, especially in terms of the developmental origins of disease and the complex causes of complex diseases.
“It’s not enough to simply acknowledge that the environment has an effect on people’s health,” she told her young colleagues. “We also need to recognize that our old assumptions about toxicants and how they affect our bodies are being changed by modern science.”
Understanding that chemicals can act like hormones and drugs, to disrupt the control of development and function at very low doses to which the average person is exposed, and that susceptibility to disease persists long after exposure, Birnbaum explained, has led NIEHS and NTP into new directions of research. She pointed to new initiatives in the areas of low dose exposures, windows of exposure, advanced toxicology screening, the effects of mixtures, routes of exposure, emerging hazards, human health effects of climate change, disaster response, and clinical research as the basis for public health and prevention efforts.
Following a data-rich discussion of new approaches to environmental public health innovative research initiatives and the Institute’s strategic plan for the next five years, Birnbaum concluded with a look back at Rachel Carson, the woman whose eloquence inspired the environmental movement with her 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” Birnbaum concluded by saying, “We’ve really come a long way…women and research. It’s been thrilling to be a part of it all.”
Birnbaum ended her talk with a caveat — “The dire prediction of a silent spring has not come true, but the job is not yet done.”
The Celebration of Science Series at TWU
The program began with a forum with students titled “Women in Science: Challenges and Promises,” which helped set the stage for the keynote presentations. Along with Birnbaum’s talk, Shana Kelley, Ph.D., a professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Toronto, addressed “Using Nanotechnology to Diagnose Disease,” and Kimberly Orth, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, explored “Black Spot, Black Death, Black Pearl: The Tales of Bacterial Effectors.”
An evening reception gave students the opportunity to talk with their distinguished guests.
According to TWU, the Ann Stuart and Ray R. Poliakoff Celebration of Science Series has a two-decade funding commitment for the departments of biology, and chemistry and biochemistry, to develop a sustained program of promoting and celebrating the wonders, truths, and mysteries of science.
The series was started with a $200,000 gift from Stuart, the chancellor of TWU, and Poliakoff, her late husband, announced April 1, 2011 during dedication of the leading-edge Ann Stuart Science Complex. Both Stuart, who holds a Ph.D. in English, and Poliakoff were first-generation graduates of public higher education, and both often said it was their education that enabled them to pursue the opportunities that enriched their lives.
Inspiring women at UNC
In her presentation March 2 at the 2012 spring seminar series at UNC, Birnbaum wove together a personal narrative on work/life balance with an overview of NIEHS and NTP environmental public health initiatives. Speakers typically give a scientific seminar to the larger scientific community at UNC, as well as meet informally with young female scientists to discuss issues related to women in science.
In the invitation to Birnbaum, the series host, UNC professor Regina Carelli, Ph.D., described her as the perfect person to represent and promote women in science. “You have been such a positive role model for me over the years,” Carelli wrote. “It would be wonderful for me to be able to share your wisdom with young women scientists at Carolina.”
Birnbaum rose to the occasion with a talk titled “You Can Have It All,” tracing her scientific career from its roots in middle school in Teaneck, N.J., where she enjoyed the support of great parents, great teachers, and, later on, great mentors. “Having it all is a very individual thing,” she began. “For me, it's fulfilling my love of science, keeping involved with the community, and of course my family.” And, she added, having as much fun at it as possible.
The talk traced Birnbaum’s career with family and work photos, from her high school science projects to her current position as leader of NIEHS and NTP, where she transitioned into the scientific segment of her talk. As she did in her talk at TWU, Birnbaum concluded her talk at UNC by recognizing Rachel Carson, one of the many remarkable women who have shaped modern science. Carson also helped set the stage for women to work toward the goal of having it all — balancing career with family, community, and the sheer joy of living life and work fully.