More than 1,200 people from across the nation joined in the first-ever Environmental Health Science (EHS) FEST Dec. 4-8, at the Durham Convention Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina. The NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) planned the FEST in recognition of the NIEHS 50th anniversary.
Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of DERT, welcomed a packed house to the opening plenary session. “Happy 50th anniversary, everyone,” she began. “What better way to celebrate the successes of the past, and to look to the future.”
Durham Mayor Bill Bell also welcomed attendees. “There is probably no other agency that touches so many people in so many ways, not just locally, but globally,” he said.
Variety of events reflects range of science
The broad range of environmental health research, community engagement, and training funded by DERT grants was reflected in the program, including a wealth of cross-disciplinary activities.
On the first day, DERT staff met with NIEHS-funded research centers and grantees in different scientific areas. The following days featured plenary and concurrent sessions, and numerous interactive events (see sidebar for companion stories in this issue).
- A resource room staffed by DERT grant experts and representatives from such programs as library and information services, communications, postdoctoral training, science education, and outreach.
- More than 250 posters.
- A sensor and technology fair.
- A film festival.
- Walking tours of downtown Durham.
- An evening of 3-minute science talks.
Throughout the week, speakers were enthusiastic about the energy and scientific exchange fostered by the gathering. Liam O’Fallon, a FEST co-lead organizer, along with Mike Humble, Ph.D., relayed comments from a grantee who works with tribal communities.
“She praised the structure of the FEST, because you could listen to a presentation on basic molecular biology, and then go to a session on community engagement,” said O’Fallon. “It was very helpful for folks on her team to have the opportunity to see the full spectrum of the science in environmental health.”
Michael Unger, Ph.D., with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, echoed the sentiment. “I’ve been excited about the new technologies that I’ve seen [here] and the human health investigations,” he said, during a session on toxicant transport through the environment. “It’s been a real eye-opening experience to see all the cross-disciplinary research this week,” he added.
Participants included representatives from federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control, and the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry.
20th century achievements, 21st century challenges
At the opening session, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., reviewed the institute’s scientific milestones(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/anniversary/timeline/) over the past half-century.
Looking forward, she detailed 21st century challenges in the field, as our understanding of how exposures affect the body deepens. Birnbaum highlighted research on exposure to mixtures of substances, community engagement, and global environmental health as significant directions in the coming years.
On the cusp of change
Other opening plenary speakers characterized certain areas of environmental health science as poised on the cusp of great change. Gary Miller, Ph.D., from Emory University, highlighted study of the exposome, or the lifetime of an individual’s exposures, both internal and external.
He suggested we are on the brink of a paradigm shift as scientists learn more about the role of metabolites and internal processes, through more affordable analyses and technologies, like wearable sensors. “We need to invest in data science, recruitment, and training,” he stressed.
Joel Kaufman, M.D., from the University of Washington, called attention to the interdisciplinary collaboration involved in translating epidemiological studies into public health and clinical practice. Beverly Wright, Ph.D., from Dillard University, said that community-driven research has strong potential to address environmental health disparities, especially through associated improvements in science literacy.
Epigenetics, or changes to DNA that affect the function of genes without altering the underlying sequence, is shifting how toxicologists study environmental chemicals, according to Shuk-Mei Ho, Ph.D., from the University of Cincinnati. Knowledge of how epigenetic changes affect the body is informing studies of chemical targets, such as microbiota and stem cells; dose-response relationships; and timing of exposures.
The broader landscape of biomedical research
Discussions of how NIEHS-funded research fits within the larger biomedical research enterprise shaped the final session, featuring representatives of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and six scientific societies.
Matt Gillman, M.D., director of the NIH Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program participated via video. He spoke of the developmental origins of health and disease, saying that ECHO will work to understand the risks and to whom they apply, take action through clinical trials and practices, and help fill unmet scientific needs.
The NIH Precision Medicine Initiative, now known as the All of Us Research Program, involves environmental health in several ways, according to Deborah Winn, Ph.D., from the National Cancer Institute and a member of the All of Us leadership team. A cohort targeted at more than one million volunteers, rapid sharing of data, including from mobile or wearable sensors, will foster new scientific insights.
The NIH Common Fund, which supports unique and cross-cutting basic science, is managed by NIH Office of Strategic Coordination Director Elizabeth Wilder, Ph.D. “Staff at NIEHS have been leaders in a number of our programs,” she said, naming DERT scientists among those leading the way on global health, epigenomics, metabolomics, and other areas.
Representatives of six scientific societies also weighed in.
- International Society of Environmental Epidemiology — Francine Laden, Sc.D., from Harvard University.
- International Society of Exposure Science (ISES) — Lesliam Quiros-Alcala, Ph.D., from the University of Maryland.
- American Public Health Association — Surili Patel
- Society of Toxicology — John Morris, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut.
- American Thoracic Society — Veena Antony, M.D., from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
- Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society (EMGS) — Tom Wilson, M.D., from the University of Michigan.
Both ISES and EMGS will hold their 2017 annual meetings in nearby Raleigh, North Carolina, strengthening the connections made at EHS FEST.