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On the Road with Director Linda Birnbaum

By Eddy Ball
March 2010

Environmental Justice cover showing hands of multiple ethnicities holding up a globe
Birnbaum, above, sees her busy schedule as a way of building relationships in the effort to improve the state of environmental public health worldwide. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Peggy Shepard
Balbus, above, is working to increase our engagement with the public health academic and advocacy communities, such as ASPH. (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

Peggy Shepard
Shown during the September 2009 advisory council meeting, NIEHS Legislative Liaison Mary Gant is the longest serving member of the Institute's Bethesda staff. Gant set up meetings for Birnbaum with members of Congress. (Photo courtesy of
Steve McCaw)

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., showed no sign of slowing down as she traveled the country recently, building and strengthening partnerships. In final days of January alone, Birbaum spoke to grantees and stakeholders in Detroit and Washington. She also took advantage of her time at the Capitol and nearby Bethesda to meet with members of Congress and colleagues at NIEHS grantees and partners.

Building bridges through collaborations

Birnbaum delivered the keynote address Jan. 20 at the University Research Corridor conference at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit. Researchers from WSU joined their counterparts from the University of Michigan (UM) and Michigan State University in an effort to develop collaborative approaches to solve problems and create opportunities in environmental health sciences.

Emphasizing the importance of "big science" involving cross-disciplinary teams of experts to better understand complex disease risk from complex environmental factors, Birnbaum focused on cancer, autism, climate change, and the potential health risks from exposure to nanomaterials. Each of these problems, she noted, can best be addressed through the kind of divergent thinking that cross-disciplinary team science fosters.

"We need a lot of people with a lot of knowledge from different areas," she said, "[and] it's easier if we all pull together."

Along with Birnbaum, a cross-disciplinary group of leaders in environmental health science research participated in a panel discussion at the conference. They included Howard Hu, M.D., Sc.D., National Science Foundation International chair and UM professor; Norbert Kaminski, Ph.D., Center for Integrative Toxicology director and MSU professor; Christine Cole-Johnson, Ph.D., biostatistics and research epidemiology chair at Henry Ford Health Systems; and Melissa Runge-Morris, M.D., acting director of WSU's Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

Reaching out to public health educators

On Jan. 29 Birnbaum and NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., attended a meeting of 14 deans and other representatives of public health schools from the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) in Washington. An additional 20 public health education leaders joined the meeting by phone.

Birnbaum's remarks were part of a dialogue between NIEHS leaders and public health educators on ways to integrate environmental health initiatives into training for the next generation of public health professionals and ways NIEHS grants can be utilized to support training. "We are committed to developing, translating, and sharing critical public health knowledge for the protection of communities and reduction of health disparities," she told the audience.

Meeting participants pledged to follow up on their discussion and work more closely in the future to help educators stay abreast of new developments in environmental public health, such as global health initiatives, the National Children's Study, and cutting-edge research in the area of exposure biology. For their part, ASPH members welcomed help from NIEHS leadership to raise the profile of public health on the national level with decision-makers at NIH, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Congress.

A very busy two weeks on the road

In addition to these two stops, Birnbaum managed to squeeze in several additional meetings in Washington - including a Gene-Environment Integration (GEI) Workshop and 3rd Annual GEI Exposure Biology Grantees Meeting as well as meetings with the ad hoc Congressional Biomedical Caucus, Representative Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh, M.D.

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