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Collman Shines at UNC Award Talk

By Robin Mackar
June 2010

Collman shown at UNC with her 2009 H.A. Tyroler Distinguished Alumni Award
Collman shown at UNC with her 2009 H.A. Tyroler Distinguished Alumni Award (Photo courtesy of Amy Collman)

The passion that Gwen Collman, Ph.D., has for epidemiology shone as brightly as the sun in Chapel Hill April 28, as she delivered the keynote lecture after receiving the 2009 H.A. Tyroler Distinguished Alumni Award at her alma mater. The award is the highest alumni honor given by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Department of Epidemiology. Collman was honored for her work with the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, where she is currently acting director.

After a few brief introductory remarks by Aaron Fleischauer, Ph.D., UNC Epidemiology Alumni Association president, UNC Epidemiology Department Chair Andrew Olshan, Ph.D., reflected on his former colleague, Herman Alfred (Al ) Tyroler, who made significant contributions to the field of epidemiology and is the namesake of the award.

Olshan commented that Tyroler had more than 40 years of service to the department, but it was his mentorship and enthusiasm for epidemiology that set him apart. From the excerpts of nomination letters Olshan read about Collman's commitment to fostering the careers of junior staff, it was easy to see why she was this year's recipient. "Gwen epitomizes what this award is all about, and we are extremely proud to have her as part of our extended UNC family," Olshan said, as he handed her the award and Collman took center stage in front of an audience filled with students, faculty, friends, colleagues, and family.

Grateful for mentors and early opportunities

Before Collman began her formal lecture, she reminisced about coming to UNC in 1979, and how Tyroler and others in the Lipid Research Clinics program at UNC taught her about research from a variety of different perspectives. "I was just a kid, but they made me feel as important as any other investigator at the table," said Collman. "I am grateful for the early experiences I had and the opportunities to learn about what it takes to pull together multi-site studies and publications. It helped set the stage for my later role with the extramural community." She half-joked that her mentors were pretty clear on her career even before she was - she was going to get her Ph.D. What they didn't realize was that her love for environmental epidemiology would win out over her initial interest in the cardiovascular field.

Community engagement in environmental epidemiology

Collman's formal presentation provided real life examples, data, and take-home messages about the commitment that she, the extramural staff at NIH, and NIEHS have about communities being an integral part of the research process. "Communities across the country have concerns about environmental hazards in their neighborhoods and how it affects their health and the health of their children and of future generations," Collman said. This concern is the common theme that sets the stage for the field of environmental public health research, which NIEHS defines as the science of conducting and translating research into action.

"Some of the most interesting times during my career have been when community members have taken me in their cars or on walks to show me what their neighborhoods look like and what they are dealing with," Collman said. She referred to these visits as "toxic tours," which had a profound impact on her.

She discussed some of the many ways communities can be involved in research and then zeroed in on three specific examples of community engagement programs that highlight the NIEHS commitment to this area (see text box ).

Collman closed with some lessons learned that indicate that partnerships between researcher and community members doesn't involve compromising on the rigor of the work or the methods. Instead, she insisted, all of the parties at the table have something to learn and something to give to the research endeavor, and the joint experience adds to the richness of the work and to its translation.

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

NIEHS Community Engagement Initiatives

Collman focused on three important NIEHS programs to illustrate the Institute's commitment to channeling the power of community engagement into improving public health:

The Breast Cancer and the Environmental Research Centers are looking at the role of environmental exposures and genetics on pubertal development in young girls at three sites across the country. Collman noted there was a shift in literature indicating that girls were going through puberty earlier and that may be related to future breast cancer risk. She stressed the important role that breast cancer advocacy group members play in designing, implementing, and retaining participants in these studies, and mentioned that the advocates are especially helpful in working with the researchers to develop the key messages about the findings.

The Environmental Justice Household Exposure Study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, the Communities for a Better Environment, and partners from Brown University is focused on knowing what communities are exposed to. Collman said she picked this example to show how the different groups work together with the community to report back findings. The study included going to 170 homes where air, dust and urine samples were collected. They looked at 150 compounds and developed some innovative user-friendly tools to communicate the findings to the individuals whose homes were included in the study.

The last example Collman gave her audience was the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment) Study at the University of California - Davis Center for Children's Environmental Health. The uniqueness of this study is that a community advisory group was formed to engage the community in the study. The advisory group is comprised of parents of children with autism, adults who have autism, physicians who treat patients with autism, and scientists. Collman emphasized how the community wanted to first focus on looking at the controversial question about the link between mercury and the risk of autism. The data showed no link between the two. The advisory group was pleased that the investigators focused and published on this risk factor first, which helped set the stage for participation and acceptance of the study by the community.

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