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Birnbaum Gives 2010 Spirit Lecture

By Eddy Ball
April 2010

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
As she spoke of faith and family, of community and career, Birnbaum paused to glance fondly at photos projected on the screen in Rodbell Auditorium and webcast throughout the Institute and to employees in Bethesda. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Wendy Jefferson, Ph.D., and Minerva Mercado-Feliciano, Ph.D.
Like others in the audience, NIEHS Biologist Wendy Jefferson, Ph.D., center, enjoyed Birnbaum's keen sense of the ridiculous as she described 1960's perceptions of the role of women in education and the workplace. Sitting with Jefferson is Postdoctoral Fellow Minerva Mercado-Feliciano, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Angela King-Herbert, D.V.M.
Birnbaum, left, smiled as she received her Spirit Lecture plaque from host Vallant. Not shown are DC Chair Brad Collins and member Angela King-Herbert, D.V.M., who also joined Birnbaum at the podium. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Members of the DC and WSA gathered for a group photo during the reception following the talk. Shown above, left to right, are King-Herbert, Vallant, Diane Spencer, Birnbaum, WSA Co-chair Michelle Hooth, Ph.D., Collins, Helen Cunny, Ph.D., and Veronica Godfrey Robinson.
Members of the DC and WSA gathered for a group photo during the reception following the talk. Shown above, left to right, are King-Herbert, Vallant, Diane Spencer, Birnbaum, WSA Co-chair Michelle Hooth, Ph.D., Collins, Helen Cunny, Ph.D., and Veronica Godfrey Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jack Bishop, Ph.D., and Mike Resnick, Ph.D.
As employees and visitors enjoyed refreshments, NTP Geneticist Jack Bishop, Ph.D., left, chatted with NIEHS Principal Investigator Mike Resnick, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., posed beside the poster advertising her talk
Following her talk, Birnbaum posed beside the poster advertising her talk (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

To celebrate Women's History Month 2010, NIEHS turned to one of its own to deliver the ninth annual Spirit Lecture presentation - NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. ( Birnbaum spoke to a near-capacity audience on March 26 about her life and her work during an afternoon presentation titled "You Can Have It All," co-sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council (DC) and the Women Scientists Assembly (WSA).

NTP Toxicologist and DC Spirit Lecture Committee Chair Molly Vallant opened the proceedings with a welcome to employees and visitors to the event, reminding them of the history of the Spirit Lecture series and its theme of balancing self, work, and family. NIEHS Staff Scientist Leesa Deterding, Ph.D., WSA co-chair, then introduced Birnbaum and spoke briefly of her colleague's success in achieving satisfaction in, and harmony among, the various aspects of her life.

A quest for passion and balance

"What for me is synonymous with ‘spirit' is fun," Birnbaum said, as she opened her talk with the theme that would inform her presentation. "I've always done things that I enjoy, fulfilling my love of science, keeping involved with the community, and of course my family."

Describing her life as a teenager and young adult, Birnbaum recalled her parents' support for her early scientific interest and her desire to pursue graduate degrees during a time when "there weren't a lot of women in the sciences." She reflected on her passion for the love of her life, for her profession, and for her family, as well as the challenge of making time for the important things in life - even when that meant putting her career on hold temporarily.

"My family is always first," she said. "Maybe I could have done something differently - worked harder and gotten here five years sooner - but who cares? So what?"

Along with valuing balance and flexibility, Birnbaum called on her listeners to "follow your nose" - to take advantage of opportunities as they arise and understand when to take new directions in life. She pointed to her own progression of "moving up the phylogenic ladder" from microbiology and biochemistry to toxicology and scientific leadership, as she matured in her professional life.

"Enjoy what you do with a passion," Birnbaum told her audience. Surround everything you do with passion, and life turns out pretty good. If you're not having fun, you'd better be doing something else."

Addressing the work at hand

With the same level of energy and enthusiasm she brought to her personal narrative, Birnbaum turned to her work as NIEHS/NTP director pursuing improvements in public health locally, nationally, and globally. She described the Institute's successes and ongoing efforts to raise "awareness of the linkages between the environment and health" and to help scientists and citizens "think [more carefully and consistently] about research from a multi-stakeholder perspective."

Birnbaum outlined NIEHS and NTP environmental public health initiatives to increase understanding of the long-range effects of early exposure to chemicals and pointed to advances in personal monitoring and remote sensing technologies. With the results of ongoing environmental health science research, she said, "We have the opportunity to increase awareness of the changes in a chemical or material during manufacture, use, and disposal." She added that understanding "changes that could impact human exposure, uptake, and biological effect" could have important implications for the development of primary prevention measures to address complex diseases triggered by complex exposures.

As she concluded her presentation, Birnbaum spoke with pride of the Institute's accomplishments and promise for the future. "Things are looking very good for us right now," she observed. "When an expert is needed, [legislators, stakeholders, and decision makers are] coming to us first, and that speaks to how we're positioned" to shape the direction and lexicon of public health discourse.

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