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NIEHS Hosts Collins During NC Visit

By Eddy Ball
June 2010

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D
As the audience settled in for the town hall address, Collins, left, talked with Birnbaum. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D
Collins joined in the laughter as he sat in the audience during Birnbaum's introduction. He described some of the epithets people have used to describe him as "over the top," but he clearly enjoyed the good-natured humor. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Greg Whitehead, Ph.D., Don Cook, Ph.D., and Paul Jung, M.D. with Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D
Prior to the town hall meeting, Collins, right, toured the NIEHS animal facility, talking and joking with NIEHS staff. Shown from left, are Biologist Greg Whitehead, Ph.D., Principal Investigator Don Cook, Ph.D., and Chief of Staff Paul Jung, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D and Traci Hall, Ph.D.
Collins, right, toured several labs. He is shown, above, talking with NIEHS Macromolecular Structure Group Principal Investigator Traci Hall, Ph.D., center, and Postdoctoral Fellow Gang Lu, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D and Jonathan Freedman, Ph.D.
Collins, left, learned about work underway in the WormTox group headed by Principal Investigator Jonathan Freedman, Ph.D., right. The group conducts medium-throughput analysis of the effects of environmental stressors on nematodes. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS staff extended a warm welcome to NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., May 11-12 during his visit to NIEHS and Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) programs at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Collins received his medical degree. Collins toured labs and the Clinical Research Unit at NIEHS and gave presentations to an all-hands meeting and to the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (see story (

After a morning spent meeting staff, talking with NIEHS principal investigators, and seeing examples of the research underway at the Institute, Collins addressed a standing-room only audience of employees gathered in Rodbell Auditorium. NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., welcomed Collins back to North Carolina, as she joked about the high praise he's received in the press and television shows, such as the Colbert Report, for his ground-breaking research, his management of the massive human genome project, his success in communicating science to the general public, and his leadership of NIH.

For NIEHS employees, the visit was an opportunity to hear Collins speak about their Institute and its role in the larger NIH mission. For his part, Collins was clearly ready to establish rapport with his colleagues in North Carolina as members of the NIH family.

"You are a very important part of the National Institutes of Health," he said at the beginning of his talk, "and I hope you know just how much the work you do, the science you're invested in, is a central part of our vision.

"We're not going to change the genome any time soon," he continued. "The way we're going to help people is by modifying the environment." He added, "In fact, we can look at the NIH mission statement and [see that] it fits very nicely with what you're doing here."

Collins then launched a discussion of his five-part research agenda with its emphasis on bridging the gap between research and application. He introduced his first priority by observing that one of the exciting opportunities facing NIH is that "we are able to ask questions that have 'all' in them."

Collins discussed opportunities in genomics and other high-throughput technologies, translational research application, global health, enabling healthcare reform, and reviving and invigorating the biomedical research community. Near the end of his talk, Collins spoke of the impending funding cliff of post-stimulus flat budgets he anticipates for NIH institutes and centers in fiscal 2011, as funding increases will fail to keep up with costs in real dollars.

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D, Darryl Zeldin, Ph.D., and Stavros Garantziotis, M.D.
The final stop on the tour was the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit (CRU). Collins, right, discussed projects underway with NIEHS Acting Clinical Director Darryl Zeldin, Ph.D., and CRU Medical Director Stavros Garantziotis, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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