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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Focus on Fellows: Sascha Liberti: World-Class Training Brings Fellow from Denmark to North Carolina

By: Banalata Sen

Dr. Sascha Liberti

Dr. Sascha Liberti
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Dr. Sascha Liberti’s desire to work with the “king of DNA mismatch repair” led to her journey from Copenhagen to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina to work with Dr. Thomas Kunkel at NIEHS. “I have been reading his papers throughout my research, and I figured if I was going abroad I might as well go to the best of the best.” Liberti is but one of many scientists who travel from foreign countries to learn from NIEHS researchers.

Prior to coming to NIEHS, Liberti was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen, Center for Healthy Aging, where she was characterizing the human exonuclease 1 gene.  Liberti received her Ph.D. from Roskilde University, Denmark, where she studied DNA mismatch repair gene variants in cancer patients.

Liberti is a visiting fellow in the Laboratory of Structural Biology who studies exonuclease 1, a gene involved in DNA mismatch repair, using yeast as a model system. A defective mismatch repair system means that every time a cell divides and errors are introduced, the cell is incapable of repairing the errors, predisposing it to cancer or other diseases.  DNA mismatch repair also plays a critical role in aging.  As humans live longer, cells go through more cycles of replication, which creates an increased chance of error. Liberti’s research tries to understand whether mutations in DNA mismatch repair genes lead to a person developing cancer.

Exposure to environmental contaminants like cadmium compromises the mismatch repair system. According to Liberti, a molecular biologist by training, when you do DNA repair research, the environment is always at the back of your mind. All exogenous exposure to our DNA that can affect human health comes from the environment.

Liberti has spent two years at the NIEHS and hopes to continue research in her field following her return to Denmark in January. “My experience here will be crucial for my future career. My time at NIEHS has allowed me to do some cool science, and I have achieved some great results in a short amount of time. The infrastructure here has allowed that to be possible.“

Commenting on the large pool of knowledge at NIEHS, Liberti said, “You never reach a cul-de-sac in your research because there is always somebody that will help you reach the next step.” She continued, “When I have my own lab, I want to incorporate many of the research practices I observed here.” Liberti said she particularly appreciated the open door policy of her mentor, Dr. Kunkel, and his fostering of a culture of openness in sharing ideas. “For inspiring creativity,” said Liberti, “it is crucial that all ideas be heard.”

GEOHealth: Research and Training Hubs Focus on Environmental and Occupational Health in Developing Countries

By: Sara Mishamandani

GEOHealth Planning Grant locations around the world
GEOHealth Planning Grant locations around the world:
  • Bangladesh
  • Chile
  • China (2)
  • Columbia (2)
  • Ethiopia
  • The Gambia
  • Ghana
  • Nicaragua
  • Peru
  • Romania
  • Suriname
  • Thailand
  • Uganda
  • Ukraine

In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the problem of contaminated air, water, and soil remain a major concern. Many of these countries lack the resources and expertise to study the link between environmental and occupational exposures and disease. The Global Environmental and Occupational health (GEOHealth) program, launched by the NIH Fogarty International Center (FIC) in partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is working to rectify this.

The GEOHealth program is intended to create regional centers for collaborative research, data management, policy support, and training to enhance environmental and occupational health research in LMICs. In 2012, $3.2 million in two-year grants was awarded to support planning for the research centers in 16 countries around the globe. Each GEOHealth grants are awarded to two institutions, one from United States and one from the host country that will manage each regional hub.

This initial set of planning grants allows partners to assess opportunities and needs in the country, prepare to conduct research and training activities, and foster sustainable partnerships. The development of these multidisciplinary centers will create and build upon key capabilities within LMIC institutions to address high priority environmental and occupational health issues with a range of research and training approaches.

“The lack of strong institutional capacity is not only a serious health concern for developing countries, but it is also a significant barrier to the needs of the global scientific community to understand environmental and occupational health threats where they are most acute,” said Christine Jessup, Ph.D., Program Officer for the GEOHealth Program.  “FIC envisions that GEOHealth centers will become global leaders in the collection, management, synthesis and interpretation of data on environmental and occupational health, ideally serving the larger multi-national regions in which they reside.”

Following this initial planning phase, FIC and its partners intend to solicit applications for full-scale GEOHealth centers. The multidisciplinary GEOHealth centers will lead collaborative research to address a wide variety of environmental and occupational health topics, including water quality, indoor and outdoor air quality, electronic waste, climate change, workplace safety, and agricultural health, among others, that reflect the country- and region-specific priorities.

“The GEOHealth program will build concentrated expertise into highly-networked multidisciplinary policy-relevant research hubs in LMICs for laboratory and population-based study of environmental and occupational health,” said Jessup. “This will create both local and global scientific capacity to address these issues and support policy formulation in a rapidly changing and increasingly industrialized world.”

Some topics of interest to GEOHealth centers include: indoor air quality caused by cooking and heating fuels, the effect of gold mining on fish and other food sources, occupational health related to agriculture, environmental and health effects of climate change, the quality and safety of traditional medicines prepared from native plants, and health issues related to dumping of toxic waste, among other subjects.