East meets west on common ground of environmental public health
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS welcomed a special delegation of public health scientists and leaders from Thailand July 11, led by Professor Dr. Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol, founder and president of the Chulabhorn Research Institute (CRI), the Chulabhorn Graduate Institute, and the Chulabhorn Cancer Center.
The Princess and her colleagues met with NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and members of the Institute’s leadership for discussions about training opportunities and NIH International Postdoctoral Programs.
The meeting included presentations by Birnbaum and Princess Chulabhorn, as well as ones by NIEHS and NTP scientists on a range of environmental public health topics of special interest in Thailand — specifically traffic-related air pollution, hazardous electronic waste, children’s health, and clean water.
Birnbaum noted the approximately 100 foreign trainees at NIEHS and pointed to NIH partnerships with several countries to offer postdoctoral training to recent Ph.D. recipients. “We will be happy to explore partnerships with Thailand for future research collaboration and training,” she said.
Showcasing NIEHS and its global health initiatives
“This is an exciting opportunity for me and our NIEHS scientists to discuss our research and our support for international scientific collaborations,” Birnbaum said as she began her overview of NIEHS and NTP organization and research.
Early on, she reminded her listeners of the importance of research to improve the ability to anticipate the impact of the environment on health, which contributes to some 85 percent of all human disease. “Thirteen million deaths could be prevented each year by improving our environment,” she said.
In the course of her overview, Birnbaum introduced the themes of the talks by NIEHS and NTP scientists that followed (see text box). These included presentations about specific global health initiatives and collaborations between NIEHS and such groups as the World Health Organization (WHO); prenatal exposures that shape the development of people everywhere and can trigger adult-onset diseases; research on the health effects of arsenic, which is present in the food and water billions of people consume throughout the world; and environmental causes of the growing epidemic of asthma among children in developing countries with rapidly growing urban centers.
In closing, Birnbaum invited the Princess to return to NIEHS for further discussions.
Noblesse oblige and a passion for science
The Chulabhorn Research Institute, Chulabhorn Graduate Institute, and Chulabhorn Cancer Center have a shared mission of applying science and technology to improve life, which parallels several key aspects of the NIEHS strategic plan. Her Royal Highness has given generously of her personal fortune, time, and influence to promote environmental public health and scientific exchange programs, including a series of seven Princess Chulabhorn International Science Symposia.
A member of the chemistry faculty at Mahidol University, Princess Chulabhorn is the first Asian to be selected as an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in England. In addition to her doctorate, the Princess holds numerous honorary degrees from universities in Thailand, the U.S. and the U.K., Japan, and elsewhere. Among her domestic and international honors, awards, and decorations for her service to global public health, the Princess has received the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Einstein Medal, as well as the Environmental Mutagenesis Society Hollaender International Fellow Award.
Taking a place at the table
The Thai delegation included Princess Chulabhorn, who presented a talk about the activities of the institutes and centers supported by the Chulabhorn Foundation, as well as the following dignitaries:
- His Excellency Ambassador Vijavat
- His Excellency Doctor Thakur
- Science Advisor Associate Professor Doctor Mathuros
- Professor Doctor Somsak
- Associate Professor Doctor Supanna
- Doctor Anucha
- The entire royal entourage
In turn, the visitors had an opportunity to meet and discuss interests and concerns they have in common with Birnbaum and the Institute’s leadership:
- Rick Woychik, Ph.D., deputy director
- William Suk, Ph.D., head of the Division of Extramural Research and Training Hazardous Substances Research Branch
- Joellen Austin, associate director for management
- John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP associate director
- Darryl Zeldin, M.D., scientific director
- Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training
- Mark Miller, Ph.D., chief of staff
Along with Birnbaum’s opening overview of NIEHS and NTP public health initiatives, “Our Environment, Our Health, Our Future,” the visitors heard presentations by four Institute scientists:
- Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D. – “Climate Change and WHO Collaborating Center”
- Lead researcher Stephanie London, M.D., Dr.P.H. – “International Consortium on Prenatal Exposures”
- NTP Laboratories biologist Erik Tokar, Ph.D. – “Arsenic in Drinking Water, Rice, and Cancer End Points”
- Health Scientist Administrator Kimberly Gray, Ph.D. – “Children’s Environmental Health: Asthma”