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Olden Receives Honorary Doctorate from Tulane University - Stays Engaged in Cancer Research

By Jerry Phelps
June 2006

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W.
  Bush congratulate Ken Olden
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush congratulate Ken Olden (Photo courtesy of Tulane University)

Ken Olden, former NIEHS director, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Tulane University on May 13. The honor was made even more special because Olden shared the podium with two former Presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Olden was honored for his "extraordinary achievements in linking environmental health sciences with public health, and bringing attention to health disparities and environmental justice...". Olden's remarks focused on his career as a public servant and the privilege of serving the American public. He accepted the degree on behalf of all public servants and stated that by honoring him "all the efforts of public servants are honored as well."

Bush once appointed Olden to the National Cancer Advisory Board, and was sitting president when Olden was appointed NIEHS Director. Clinton was president during most of Olden's tenure as Director, and presented him with the Meritorious Executive and Distinguished Executive awards in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Bush and Clinton, the commencement speakers, were both awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Laws in recognition for their post-Katrina efforts in helping to restore the Gulf Coast area.

The pace of work has not decreased for Olden since he stepped down as Director of NIEHS last year. Neither has the complexity of the issues he is tackling. Olden says that when preparing for his lab's Board of Scientific Counselors review in 2003, he realized just how much he missed laboratory research. It was at that moment that he decided the time was right to turn over the reins of running NIEHS to someone else.

His laboratory research continues to focus on strategies to prevent metastasis of cancer by developing a greater understanding of the principles of cell adhesion. Olden's lab group, which includes Steve Akiyama and John Roberts along with a number of research assistants and post-doctoral fellows, is studying how carcinogenic cells are released from tumors and how they colonize cancer in other parts of the body. He is actively involved in the laboratory, as well as planning the lab's direction, and reviewing its output.

In addition to his efforts in the lab, Olden is using his new found "free-time" to focus on issues and challenges that always interested him. Olden is exploring new ways to address the issue of health disparities and wants to bring basic and clinical researchers into the arena along with sociologists. In framing the questions and debate on this topic, Olden thinks racial differences in the frequencies of gene polymorphisms are just as important as previously addressed issues such as behavioral differences. Olden cites BiDilĀ®, a drug approved for heart failure in African Americans, as an example and suspects that genetic polymorphisms are at the root of why this drug is more effective in African Americans than Caucasians.

Another weighty task is the establishment of the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative. Olden, acting as the group's Chair, and colleagues at Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, CIIT, and the Constella Group are establishing the Collaborative as a "think tank" on environmental health issues. The Collaborative, a non-profit organization, will host a summit in the autumn of 2006 to bring together "environmental and public health leaders to identify the 'grand challenges' facing environmental health and to plan a strategy for addressing these challenges." Olden's said, "One goal of the Collaborative is to increase the visibility and awareness of environmental health concerns and to highlight NIEHS and the other member organizations of the Collaborative as key players in solving them."

Olden serves without compensation on the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. He also is guiding policy development on the social and ethical issues related to stem cell research as a member of a subcommittee of the California Stem Cell Advisory Committee. He is frequently asked to deliver invited lectures. He is currently writing a book chapter on gene-gene and gene-environment interactions and he was invited by Springer-Verlag to produce a textbook on health disparities. Stepping out of his "comfort zone," an editorial on the problems and solutions in the health care delivery system will soon be submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine. In September, he will begin a year-long teaching appointment in the Yerby Visiting Professorship at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Olden expressed gratitude to his many colleagues at NIEHS. Now with the time to focus on new priorities, Olden said he "is especially appreciative of NIH, NIEHS, and David Schwartz," current NIEHS Director for supporting his "continued laboratory research and the opportunity to pursue other endeavors."

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