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Environmental Factor, August 2012

Young EH researchers shine at ONES symposium

By Jeffrey Stumpf

Slide from ONES program presentation

The ONES program started in 2006 and was designed to attract young investigators to research fields that involve environmental health, by committing five years of generous funding. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

The diversity of the talks, as Birnbaum pointed out, demonstrates the difficulty in studying environmental health. “The breadth of issues shows the complicated landscape that spans from very basic molecular studies to clinical research and population based studies.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michelle Block, Ph.D.

Block, who is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, presented the opening lecture showing how environmental toxins combine to cause a synergistic effect that she termed microglial priming. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS held its sixth annual Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) Awardee Symposium July 10-11, to highlight the exciting research being performed by a group of especially promising young researchers. ONES awards provide early-career investigators with up to five years of support, to advance research designed to answer important questions about environmental health, as they build a laboratory, cohesive research group, and body of work to help establish themselves as full-fledged members of the research community.

Organized by Health Science Administrator Carol Shreffler, Ph.D., the ambitious agenda featured 27 talks by awardees, with introductory remarks by six program administrators who moderated the program.

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., opened the symposium with a message underscoring the importance of supporting new researchers and ideas. “We are focused on developing the next generation of scientists,” Birnbaum stated. “We recognize that all of you are laying the foundation for the future of our scientific community.”

Birnbaum assured the audience of early-career investigators that the support will continue. “Our strategic plan [with its commitment to the development of new talent] isn’t just lip service,” Birnbaum explained. “I plan to back up these words with resources and funding that will ensure that this important stream of new talent continues to flow.”

Meetings as a forum for collaboration

Bringing together the ONES awardees every year has fostered a familiarity that is unusual in forums of this kind. The ONES meetings have nurtured a level of collegiality that prompted awardee James Luyendyk, Ph.D., to thank his 41 mentors, a reference to the support he’s enjoyed from the other awardees. Another investigator, Angela Slitt, Ph.D., noted simply, “It’s awesome to see peers doing so well.”

Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., and Heather Patisaul, Ph.D, demonstrated that bringing together the bright young minds in environmental health research helps improve the quality of the science. “One of the most amazing things about the ONES program is how it has facilitated wonderful collaborations,” Patisaul said of the way she and Stapleton shared information about the new fire retardant chemical FM550 that could benefit both of their projects.

Joseph Shaw, Ph.D., agreed that interaction with his colleagues has advanced his research and career. “The ONES award has been truly instrumental, especially in building collaborations with other groups that we would not [otherwise] have had,” Shaw said. “These are the types of collaborations that help us ask bigger questions than we could have individually.”

Addressing important topics in environmental health

The symposium kicked off with several talks on the mechanisms of toxicity. Former NIEHS postdoc Michelle Block, Ph.D., led off with some interesting studies that suggest a progression from environmental exposures, such as pesticides, to microglial activation, which in turn triggers the development of Parkinson’s disease. Slitt is studying the link between environmental exposures, nutrition, and genetics, and fat formation and weight loss. Luyendyk and Vishal Vaidya, Ph.D., are interested in how environmental toxins affect liver and kidney disease.

A major scientific theme was that environmental exposures, with potentially significant effects on human health, may occur in utero or, as Christy Porucznik, Ph.D., suggests, even before conception. Porucznik leads the Home Observation of Periconceptional Exposures study that monitors environmental exposures in couples trying to conceive. Metals and endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as flame retardants, were also discussed for their potential to impair the development of the fetus or to adversely affect an individual later in life.

In addition to numerous talks on the biological effects of exposure to various environmental toxicants, a set of awardees reported on new findings about repairing DNA damage. Telomeric and mitochondrial DNA repair and cope with DNA damage differently than does the nucleus, and several talks suggested that these differences may play a role in adverse effects on human health.

Related stories:

Grantee explores the relationship between DNA damage and aging

Former NIEHS trainees return for ONES symposium

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)


Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., and Heather Patisaul, Ph.D

Stapleton, right, and Patisaul, center, listened as they waited for their turn to present. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D.

Elena Braithwaite, Ph.D., staff scientist in the NIEHS Comparative Genomics Group, supported her fellow environmental health scientists at the two-day symposium. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Patricia Opresko, Ph.D.

Patricia Opresko, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh, gave a talk about mechanisms for repair of ultraviolet damage on telomeres to avoid shortening of the ends of chromosomes. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Dan Shaughnessy, Ph.D.

Dan Shaughnessy, Ph.D., listened to the talks from the Mutagenesis, Carcinogenesis, and DNA Repair part of the symposium that he moderated. Shaughnessy is a program administrator in the NIEHS Susceptibility and Population Health Branch. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Christy Porucznik, Ph.D.

Porucznik is an assistant professor at the University of Utah and has an established record of leadership in prenatal health advocacy. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Brandon Pierce, Ph.D.

Pierce, an epidemiologist from the University of Chicago, uses genomic data to find environmental risk factors in cancer. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Birnbaum highlights accomplishments from ONES awardees

The addition of six new grants in 2011 brought the number of awardees to 42. Birnbaum had time to mention only some of the various exceptional honors and publications in her introduction.

  • Aaron Bowman, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, was co-author of a publication in Nature titled “Opposing effects of polyglutamine expansion on native protein complexes contribute to SCA1.”
  • Stapleton, of Duke University, received the Best Science Paper of 2011 in Environmental Science and Technology and was named Communication Fellow for Environmental Health News.
  • Yu Chen, Ph.D., from the Langone Medical Center at New York University, and Brandon Pierce, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, were co-authors of “Arsenic exposure from drinking water, and all-cause and chronic-disease mortalities in Bangladesh (HEALS): a prospective cohort study,” published in Lancet.
  • Shaw, of Indiana University, who is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, published an article in Science in 2011 titled “The ecoresponsive genome of Daphnia pulex.”
  • Jesus Araujo, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, is a member of a scientific review panel on toxic air contaminants for the California Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Joel Meyer, Ph.D., of Duke University, a former Superfund Research Program (SRP) Ph.D. trainee, is now a project leader in that program.
  • Sarah Delaney, Ph.D., of Brown University, won the 2011 Philip J. Bray Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in the Physical Sciences.
  • Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., project leader of an NIEHS SRP center, received this year’s Teaching Innovation Award from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Michelle Bell, Ph.D., of Yale University, received the Prince Albert II of Monaco/Institut Pasteur Award, for research on environmental changes and impacts on human health.
  • Slitt won the 2012 Early Career Faculty Research Excellence Award in the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Engineering from the University of Rhode Island.
  • Donna Zhang, Ph.D., from the University of Arizona, received the Society of Toxicology 2012 Achievement Award.
  • Jill Poole, M.D., received a 2011 New Investigator award from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
  • Jason Bielas, Ph.D., from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and University of Washington School of Medicine, was elected as a councilor of the Environmental Mutagen Society.
  • Brent Carter, M.D., of the University of Iowa, and John Hollingsworth, M.D., of Duke, were both recently elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation. This honor recognizes the exceptional accomplishments of early-career physician-scientists.
  • Stacey Harper, Ph.D., Oregon State University, was elected president of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Society of Toxicology.
  • ONES awardees have filed for at least eight patents.


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