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Anne Sassaman Set to Retire

By Eddy Ball
October 2006

Anne Sassaman
DERT Director Anne Sassaman. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On November 3, after 32 years of federal service, DERT Director Anne Sassaman, Ph.D., will retire from her position at NIEHS. One of the top professionals in her field, she will leave with a long list of major accomplishments and awards to her credit and fond memories of her many friendships over the years.

Known and admired throughout NIH, Sassaman had an enduring influence on the institute and earned the respect of everyone who worked with her. Commenting on Sassaman in a recent announcement to NIEHS staff, Director David Schwartz wrote, "All of us will miss her enthusiasm and her ability to oversee a very complex operation.... [and] I will personally miss her loyalty and persistence."

Since joining NIEHS in 1986, Sassaman took her group from program status with 26 employees, including only three program administrators, and a small portfolio of individual research grants and centers, to a division with 20 program administrators and a large cadre of other extramural professionals. Today, DERT is responsible for overseeing more than 800 grants, more than 3,000 individual researchers and a network of core environmental health research centers and centers specializing in innovative research into children's health, breast cancer and the environmental health effects of the oceans.

In recognition of her leadership and the quality of her work, NIH presented Sassaman with a series of Director's Awards over the years, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science honored her with its prestigious fellowship in 2002. She received her first Director's Award while still at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, where she was an administrator for ten years before coming to NIEHS and was instrumental in developing national and international programs in thrombosis and hemostasis.

Even more important than the growth of DERT reflected in sheer numbers during Sassaman's tenure is the evolution in the quality, focus and diversity of research supported by the division. Today's DERT is a proactive force in the field of environmental health research with a mission shaped by the visions of Sassaman and the three NIEHS directors she worked for throughout her tenure. "We probably have the most diverse portfolio of any institute at NIH, particularly an institute of our size," Sassaman observed.

As DERT director, Sassaman helped NIEHS grow beyond its initial role as an agency concerned primarily with toxicology testing and assessment of environmental hazards. By 2006, NIEHS had become a scientific powerhouse spearheading interdisciplinary research into the use of environmental science to study disease on the cellular and genetic levels as well as the effects of the environment on public health.

With characteristic modesty, Sassaman describes her greatest accomplishment as "being able to recruit great people and work with them to create new programs." Thanks to her management style and personal charisma, DERT has enjoyed a high level of success in recruiting and retaining exceptional staff, including some current staff who joined DERT through Stay in School appointments and have moved ahead in their careers. The division has also benefited from her visibility in Bethesda, helping to maintain a high profile for NIEHS among sister institutes.

As a young woman entering a career in science, Sassaman often found herself in the distinct minority where she worked and studied, and she experienced institutional barriers to her dual role as a professional woman and mother. In her undergraduate chemistry program at Auburn, she was the only woman enrolled. During her doctoral program in Microbiology-Immunity and post-doctoral work in the Departments of Biochemistry and Medicine (Cardiology Division) at Duke, she pursued her career in an environment still dominated by males.

In her career at NIH, she flourished in a more nurturing environment, and she did her part to raise awareness of gender and family issues in the workplace. When the NIEHS Diversity Council inaugurated the Spirit Lecture Series in 2002 to honor outstanding women during Women's History Month, few were surprised with the choice of the first lecturer, Anne Sassaman speaking on "Life! In Science."

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