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NIEHS Officially Welcomes New Director

By Blondell Peterson
July 2005

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, right, swears in the new NIEHS director, David Schwartz
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni swears in the new NIEHS director, David Schwartz.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Rall Building auditorium June 24 to welcome the fourth NIEHS director, David Schwartz. The crowd overflowed into the lobby and cafeteria as well.

The event began with a slide presentation of Schwartz's life in science from his school days in the early 1970s when he wore an afro, which drew roars from the crowd, up to the present time with him pictured in front of the Rall Building. A caption on the final slide read: "NIEHS/NTP Director.

NIH Director, Elias Zerhouni flew in from Bethesda to conduct the swearing-in ceremony. Deputy Director Sam Wilson introduced Zerhouni and noted that "we are beginning a new chapter in NIEHS history and we sincerely appreciate all of you coming to help us celebrate this event."

Before the ceremony, Zerhouni cited many reasons NIEHS is "getting a star."

"I think Schwartz is not just a smart and well respected researcher," Zerhouni said. "The thing that comes across whenever you meet David is what came across in the tape - the humanity. You could tell he has that warmth, and also his unconventional nature. In fact, his unconventional nature is part of leadership - the ability to see not how to do things right, but to define what the right things are to do, not today, but ten years from now. I think Schwartz will show that. He has a passion for this mission, for the environmental health sciences."

"Recruitment of the director for this institute [NIEHS] is one of the most important recruitments I have had to do during my tenure because I believe that the NTP's ability, for example, to bring together so many different agencies, and enlighten public policy, has rendered a great service to the nation and will continue to do so," Zerhouni said.

He also acknowledged the leadership that NIEHS played in the NIH strategic plan for research in obesity, more specifically, the health environment aspect. He said that studying the role that the environment plays in chronic diseases is critical.

"In the nation we are seeing a rise in chronic diseases as opposed to acute diseases," he said. "Thirty years ago acute conditions were the main worry. Today 75 percent of our health care expenditures are related to chronic conditions."

Zerhouni continued to say he was pleased to celebrate the event and told the crowd that NIEHS is "very fortunate in many respects," and he described the role the institute will have in the future.

"Not only do you support great environmental science, but also with the leadership that you have, I think we are going to see some refocusing toward children's health and towards understanding that, at the end of the day, the reason we want to understand the environment is because we want to improve the lot of mankind," Zerhouni said.

Zerhouni told the audience to "fasten your seatbelts." He predicted that the next 25 years will usher in a new era with fundamental changes in the way we practice medicine.

"It is no longer just the technology that is going to drive change, but it's the whole understanding of the symbiosis between us and our environment that will drive that change," he said. "At the tip of that is NIEHS. So we're looking to new leadership to protect us but also advance our knowledge."

After being sworn in as NIEHS/NTP director, Schwartz took the stage and addressed the audience. He thanked his wife, mother-in-law and two daughters who were in attendance. He has a son, who was unable to attend the ceremony.

Schwartz said credit for NIEHS success goes to all NIEHS employees. In addition to that, he said, "It's also important to recognize the substantial contribution of the innovative leadership provided by the three previous directors, and most recently, the team of Ken Olden and Sam Wilson. Ken and Sam are simply visionaries in environmental health sciences."

Schwartz said he plans to build on the strong foundation and distinguished history the previous leadership achieved while crafting a vision and plan for the Institute. His vision includes all NIEHS employees. He created a strategic plan website and encourages all employees to provide feedback by answering six questions on the site. (See related story)

"As I see it, there are four major areas that will have the greatest impact on preventing disease and improving human health: basic science, disease-oriented research, global environmental health, and of course, training tomorrow's scientists," he said.

To achieve these goals, Schwartz said, "We need to learn how to support and reward interdisciplinary teams of investigators." Since NIEHS is not limited by an organ system, a disease or a population, Schwartz said the Institute has the opportunity to bring together teams of scientists with different backgrounds, skills, and ideas to more effectively tackle today's critical problems in environmental health.

"This interdisciplinary approach will undoubtedly lead to more substantial advances in human health," he said. "It will also align our Institute with some of the more progressive programs established by Zerhouni through the NIH Roadmap Initiative."

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