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NIEHS Women at Center Stage in Bethesda

By Eddy Ball
April 2009

Photo of Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D.
Hrynkow has a special policy and research interest in the vulnerabilities of women to environmental threats, such as experiencing sexual abuse as a terror and genocidal tactic during war, handling hazardous waste in search of materials to sell and cooking indoors without proper ventilation. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Haley and the NIH Office of the Director)

Group photo, Lawrence Self, center. Shown from left to right, are Leland, Lee, Birnbaum, Hrynkow and OEODM Federal Women's Employment Program Manager Margarite Curtis-Farrell
The women of the day show off their global awards from Office of Employment Opportunity and Diversity Management (OEODM) presented by Director Lawrence Self. Shown from left to right, are Leland, Lee, Self, Birnbaum, Hrynkow and OEODM Federal Women's Employment Program Manager Margarite Curtis-Farrell. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Haley and the NIH Office of the Director)

NIEHS leaders Associate Director Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., and Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., were featured speakers at the NIH 2009 Women's History Month Observance held in Wilson Hall on the NIH Campus in Bethesda March 12. The event was sponsored by the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management.

Hrynkow presented the keynote talk at the event, "Women Taking the Lead to Save the Planet." Birnbaum spoke briefly afterwards, underscoring the NIEHS commitment to "stepping up its activities in regard to climate change and global environmental health."

The audience was welcomed to the event by organizer Sally Lee, executive officer of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who noted that NIH employs more than 10,000 women, many of them in major roles - including seven who serve as directors of institutes and centers (ICs). Hrynkow and Birnbaum were introduced by Teresa Leland, coordinator of the NIH Environmental Management System. The talks were aired live via videocast ( Exit NIEHS and are now available in the NIH Videocast archive.

Hrynkow, who has worked in leadership and policy positions with the NIH Fogarty Center, U.S. State Department and United Nations Foundation, is the NIEHS lead in the area of global environmental health partnerships. Her talk explored the contributions of women's leadership in protecting the environment through research and activities designed to reverse ecological destruction.

Opening her talk with a general overview of the benefits and challenges of the environment, Hrynkow emphasized that "we are very [intricately] tied to our environment." She described the importance of what the environment gives humans in terms of sustenance, medicines from plants and minerals, spiritual inspiration, and the psychological and physical healing power of natural beauty.

She balanced these positive aspects with the myriad health risks people face in their environments and the anticipated effects of climate change. Reflecting on the grim scenario envisioned by some observers, she referred to the sobering predictions of World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan, M.D., who described climate change as the fifth horseman (  Download Adobe ReaderExit NIEHS (27.5 KB) of a looming potential environmental apocalypse.

Hrynkow moved on to profiles of two of the women whose contributions to global environmental health may help to avert that apocalypse - former WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, M.D., ( Exit NIEHS and Peruvian social entrepreneur and Ashoka Foundation ( Exit NIEHS Fellow Albina Ruiz. ( Exit NIEHS Brundtland, she explained, epitomizes the contributions of women at the highest policy levels, while Ruiz exemplifies the community-based bottom-up approach of activists making significant contributions to environmental health at the local level.

Both approaches, Hrynkow noted, are essential, and both are examples of how women everywhere can take the lead to save the planet. She closed by paraphrasing philanthropist Ted Turner, "Men have had a chance to run the planet for a long time, and we've seen the outcomes. Now it's time to give women a chance."

After thanking Hrynkow for "an inspiring talk," Birnbaum concluded the presentation by expressing her sense that "we have a window of opportunity now in our nation to address our environmental issues." She also talked of a collective responsibility for "nurturing the next generation of women in science" - something, she said, "I take very seriously as a part of what I do personally."

Like Hrynkow, Birnbaum strove to highlight new possibilities at the center of the global environmental challenge. As difficult as the future will be, she concluded, "I see lots of opportunities for us, ... and I look forward to the journey [ahead]."

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