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Birnbaum Greets Employees at Town Hall

By Eddy Ball
February 2009

Birnbaum was at ease with the audience from the outset. Several people in the audience had been colleagues when she worked at NIEHS 19 years ago, while others she knows from collaborations and meetings. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The crowd
The crowd, including Biologist Marilyn Ehrenshaft, Ph.D., left, and Chemist Jean Corbett, lined the walls of Rodbell Auditorium. Some employees stood outside in the hall and lobby as they listened. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

People in the audience
People in the audience, such as Toxicologist Helen Cunny, Ph.D., center, gave speakers with questions for the new director their undivided attention. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Associate Director Chris Portier
Along with the serious and at times moving moments, the talk also featured several humorous moments. Associate Director Chris Portier, Ph.D., center, enjoyed a comment from an audience member. He is shown with Associate Director Marc Hollander, left, and Principal Investigator Karen Adelman, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Speaking to a standing-room-only audience on January 26, new NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., offered employees a preview of what they can expect from her leadership during an hour-long talk and question-and-answer session. Her tone was upbeat and often humorous, and her audience greeted her remarks on several occasions with applause during this important moment in the history of NIEHS.

During her talk, she pointed to initiatives she has already put in place, such as the anonymous director's suggestion box now available on the NIEHS internal Junction website, and her plans to improve the organizational climate at the Institute. She pleased many of listeners by announcing that she would not set up her own lab in the near future, but instead focus her complete attention on the operation of the Institute.

Describing NIEHS as the "premier environmental health organization in the world," Birnbaum introduced her themes early in the talk. "NIEHS has been through a rough time," she conceded, but emphasized that "we can do better" and emerge "a more cohesive group" than before - restoring trust in leadership and mending fences within NIEHS and with NIH, other federal agencies and the Institute's constituencies. She said she plans to make no major personnel changes until she has had a chance to understand better the needs of the Institute.

To that end, Birnbaum has opened communication with the NIEHS Assembly of Scientists and the NIEHS Trainees Assembly. She has adopted an open-door policy and invited employees to feel free to call and write her with suggestions or to stop her in the hallway to talk.

Birnbaum said that she plans to invite a number of directors of other NIH ICs and high-level management personnel to visit NIEHS as guest speakers and that she plans cooperative efforts for shared resources with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies. She also plans to continue the leadership's outreach and support efforts for grantees and other constituencies.

With a fresh and engaging humility that gave added force and credence to her words, Birnbaum focused on the qualities that she values in an organization - open minds, respect for colleagues, divergent thinking, diversity, full disclosure, fairness, responsibility, accountability and a constructive, open environment that leads to genuine two-way communication.

Birnbaum discussed some of the continuing challenges faced by NIEHS, including the global impact of environmental health issues, the complexity of disease, the mandate to translate effectively research findings into treatment and prevention, and the need to increase efforts to cross disciplines and look for opportunities for synergy in research.

During the question-and-answer section, she responded to several pointed questions with a candor that left speakers expressing their encouragement and faith in her willingness to push for greater transparency. In closing, she promised to promote "[effective] leadership, not dictatorship" and thanked the employees for helping her feel at home during her first weeks at NIEHS. "You guys have been so welcoming," she told the audience.

NIEHS Director Honored for Research

The week before she assumed her duties as NIEHS director, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., was honored for her research with a 2008 Level III Scientific and Technological Achievement Award (STAA) from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a paper published last year. Her study, "Elevated PBDE Levels in Pet Cats: Sentinels for Humans, ( Exit NIEHS" appeared in the September 15, 2007 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T).

As the EPA website ( Exit NIEHS explains, Level III STAA winners are researchers "who have accomplished an unusually notable research or technological effort." Their research must meet the high standard of making "substantial revision or modification of a scientific/technological principle or procedure or an important improvement to the value of a device, activity, program or service to the public."

Birnbaum's study explored the association between levels of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in household cats and the incidence of feline hyperthyroidism, which has risen dramatically since the fire-retardant compounds were introduced 30 years ago. Based on their analysis of PBDE concentrations in the serum of household cats, the investigators determined that exposure patterns in cats parallel those of humans, especially children, and that further investigation using cats as a "sentinel species" for humans may help scientists better understand the health effects of chronic exposure to the endocrine-disrupting polybrominated flame retardants.

Receiving the award along with Birnbaum was lead author and EPA Research Biologist Janice A. Dye, Ph.D. The awarded also acknowledged the contributions of co-authors from Indiana University and the University of Georgia.


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