By Adeline Lopez
On June 6, 2018, NIEHS held its third annual Global Environmental Health (GEH) Day in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The event brought together over 100 global environmental health professionals, including NIEHS staff, researchers from diverse disciplines, policy experts, and students, to discuss important issues in translating research into practice and to share lessons learned.
NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., welcomed attendees and explained how the NIEHS Strategic Plan reflects the Institute’s mission to conduct research, and to ensure that it is translated to action for the benefit of all people who need it.
“NIEHS recognizes that environmental health issues do not respect national boundaries,” said Woychik. “It is our mission to reduce the burden of disease from environmental exposures not only in the United States, but around the world.”
In opening remarks, John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., senior advisor for public health and director of the NIEHS-World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, noted that the goal of GEH Day is to raise awareness about environmental health science research and build networks for global health practitioners. Balbus also gave a brief history of the evolution of the GEH program at NIEHS, including a growing focus on translating research into practice and identifying solutions to address the growing burden of disease attributed to the environment.
Breaking Barriers and Crossing Silos
Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Christine McEntee, delivered the keynote presentation. She related the history of the AGU and how they have been contributing to initiatives related to earth observations and human health (GeoHealth). She also discussed some of the challenges and opportunities for the kind of interdisciplinary research this field requires.
“It can be very challenging to cross academic silos, not only for obtaining funding and publishing papers or sharing data, but also from a basic terminology perspective because different disciplines don’t always speak the same language,” noted McEntee. She described AGU efforts to incentivize transdisciplinary research through awards and fellowships, and the shift toward collaborative funding and interdisciplinary research. She also highlighted how their new open-access GeoHealth Journal includes plain language summaries so readers outside of the primary discipline can still understand and use the knowledge being generated.
In a lively Q&A session that followed, participants shared transdisciplinary research experiences and proposed ideas for organizations like AGU to continue promoting GEH.
Early Experiences in GEH Research
During a panel discussion, GEH fellows described early experiences that led them to their current research and challenges encountered during their field work. They also offered advice to other early career GEH students.
Josiah Kephart, a Fogarty Global Health Scholar, described how his experiences working in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras inspired his interest in GEH. He shared his current research as part of a clinical intervention to reduce exposure to air pollutants from biomass cookstoves in Peru through liquid petroleum gas (LPG) stoves.
Kendra Williams, a Fogarty Global Health Doctoral Fellow working on the same clinical intervention in Peru, described her undergraduate experience studying abroad in India and early work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that led her to study adoption of LPG stoves among women in Peru.
Stephani Kim, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at NIEHS, shared her experience on a project related to water quality and access in Ghana, and later research on electronic waste recycling in Guiyu, China.
All three fellows emphasized the importance of building rapport and close relationships with communities while conducting field work. They also stressed the need to be prepared for anything and flexible to adapt to the unexpected. Finally, the fellows encouraged other students to seek out mentors who would challenge them and guide them to opportunities in GEH research.
Lessons Learned in Effective Research Translation
In a second panel discussion, established GEH researchers shared their background and experiences leading to their current research projects. They also described important lessons they have learned about effectively translating their research in diverse settings.
Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described her work in Mexico looking at epigenetic changes resulting from prenatal arsenic exposure. Fry discussed the challenges of transporting biological samples across the border and stressed the importance of being adaptable but determined. She also noted the importance of sharing rewards and continuing to include international collaborators on subsequent publications.
Jim Zhang, Ph.D., from Duke University, discussed his research to understand how policies to reduce air pollution during the Beijing Olympics were linked to improved health outcomes. He emphasized that GEH research can be incredibly rewarding as it often has immediately translatable findings and involves extensive collaborative efforts and cultural exchange in addition to scientific exchange.
Tegan Blaine, Ph.D., from USAID, described her work to understand the impacts of climate on health in Africa. She stressed that science alone cannot address global health issues without action, and that decision makers could benefit from scientists being more willing to share their opinions even when there is a level of uncertainty or risk that the information is preliminary.
Brainstorming Solutions and Looking Ahead
During round table discussions, break-out groups raised important questions about translating GEH research into action. Participants were able to interact, share ideas, and brainstorm solutions that incorporated their diverse backgrounds and disciplines.
Attendees discussed the importance of building on the concept OneHealth to bring together medical professionals, scientists, engineers, economists, and others to address GEH problems. They also noted the importance of using unique approaches, such as pictures and graphics, that can communicate across language barriers.
After the round table discussions, attendees viewed posters and listened to presentations from the poster submitters. The posters covered topics ranging from an assessment of global air pollution and health research from an exposomic perspective, one that considers all exposures of an individual across their lifetime, to an analysis of how the effects of lead exposure on liver function are related to occupation.
Looking to the future, participants agreed that community engagement, educating the next generation of GEH leaders, and facilitating interdisciplinary research through funding opportunities and other initiatives are vitally important.
GEH Day coincided with the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council Meeting to allow council members, leaders in fundamental science, medical science, education, and public affairs, to participate. Brad Racette, M.D., from Washington University in St. Louis; Edith Parker, Dr.P.H., from the University of Iowa; Shuk-mei Ho, Ph.D., from the University of Cincinnati; and Irasema Coronado, Ph.D., from the University of Texas at El Paso, lead the round-table discussions and served as judges during the poster session.