The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) selected Elizabeth Martin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) as the 19th recipient of the annual Wetterhahn Memorial Award. The announcement of the 2016 winner was made during the Dec. 5 SRP meeting, at the NIEHS Environmental Health Science festival in Durham, North Carolina.
Martin, who is pursuing her Ph.D. under UNC SRP Center Director Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., was recognized for her cutting-edge research on epigenetic mechanisms associated with health effects from with exposure to metals. Epigenetic changes affect the function of DNA without altering the original sequence of amino acids. SRP established the annual award to recognize an outstanding graduate student or postdoctoral researcher who demonstrates the qualities of scientific excellence exhibited by Karen Wetterhahn, Ph.D.
Health effects of toxic metals
“As a native North Carolinian, my commitment to understanding the health effects of toxic metals was fueled by the Dan River spill,” Martin said. “These metals are impacting the lives of individuals not only in North Carolina, but around the globe.”
Martin’s research as an SRP trainee aims to address two critical knowledge gaps in public health. The first is how the epigenome is involved in the health effects of toxic metals. Her second aim is to understand how individual differences in metal metabolism may influence disease risk.
“Elizabeth has an impressive publication record for such a young scientist, which is a real testament to her drive and scientific acumen,” Fry said. Fry further noted that Martin’s research is beginning to explain how environmental exposures target certain regions of the genome for epigenetic changes. “Her work presents an entirely new and game-changing hypothesis in the environmental epigenetics field.”
Communication, outreach, and mentorship
Outside of the lab, Martin is actively involved in scientific communication and outreach. She participates in community engagement efforts, particularly with educators, and with youth and their families. Martin also mentors undergraduate and graduate students to encourage women and minority students to pursue scientific degrees. She strives to serve as a mentor for the future generation of female scientists of color and to encourage diverse individuals to pursue careers in science and environmental health.
Martin plans to continue in academia after completing her degree. In addition to environmental health research, she wants to to expand her involvement in science communication and mentorship. “As I continue in my career, I plan to focus on working in underserved communities to promote scientific advancement, education, community empowerment,” Martin said.
Citation: Martin EM, Fry RC. 2016. A cross-study analysis of prenatal exposures to environmental contaminants and the epigenome: support for stress-responsive transcription factor occupancy as a mediator of gene-specific CpG methylation patterning. Environ Epigenet 2(1) doi:10.1093/eep/dvv011 [Online 30 Jan 2016].
(Adeline Lopez is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)