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Birnbaum Addresses UT Houston Grads

By Ed Kang
June 2010

University of Texas Health Center at Houston School of Public Health

Birnbaum at the podium in Houston
Birnbaum at the podium in Houston (Photo courtesy of UTH)

To mark the 40th commencement of the University of Texas Health Center at Houston ( Exit NIEHS School of Public Health, NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., gave the keynote address May 8 before an audience of about 80 graduates and hundreds of family members, friends, and faculty gathered at the school's University Center.

She thanked the graduates for "embarking in this noble endeavor of seeking answers to some of humankind's greatest health problems," and went further to suggest, "You will be put to work on the biggest challenges the world has ever seen."

Challenges and the paradox of technology

On the one hand, she said, "The dark side of technology has been the impact of climate change on human suffering. [This] will be a primary influence on many of our public health concerns and will drive your work throughout your lifetimes."

From her position as a career-long toxicologist, Birnbaum warned of another case of technology's impact on our health - chemicals.

While acknowledging that "living without chemicals is just not possible," she also pointed to ongoing biomonitoring studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that measure the presence of PBDE, bisphenol A, PFOA, acrylamide, perchlorate, phthalates, and nearly 200 other compounds found in people. "We are a walking cocktail of toxic or potentially toxic man-made chemicals," she said.

The promise of advanced laboratory analysis

"While the law of unintended consequences to our human activities is the law of the land, technology has the capacity to be a big part of the solution to characterize the public health issues, research the causes, develop solutions, and disseminate results," she said, attributing the game-changing nature of supercomputers, the instant availability of huge quantities of data, and the analytical capability to bring meaning from that information.

Referring to the promise of advanced toxicological testing, Birnbaum told the graduates, "Today's high-throughput assays do for wet chemistry what the semiconductor did for computing."

New demands on regulatory science

Continuing her theme of advancement, Birnbaum highlighted breakthroughs in the new science of epigenetics, the study of changes to the packaging of the DNA molecules that influence the expression of genes, and hence the risks of diseases and altered development. "This new understanding heightens the need to protect people at critical times in their development when they are most vulnerable - during 'windows of susceptibility.'"

Birnbaum capped her address by offering a solution to bridge the divide between the damaging impacts of technological forces and the health benefits provided by certain cutting-edge advancements. "The current regulatory structure needs to be changed to embrace modern science and testing capabilities to better reduce risk," she said, encouraging graduates to stay mindful of the continuum between science and policy. "Think broadly," advocated Birnbaum. "Science isn't done for the sake of science - your science should inform policy and regulations, and, likewise, good public policy should be based on strong and honest science."

Bringing her remarks to a close, Birnbaum returned to the theme of environmental awareness, quoting Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish tribes in what is now Washington State. "You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children, what we have taught our children - that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth."

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Birnbaum Honored by University of Rochester

Forty-three years after receiving her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Rochester, Linda Birnbaum returned to her alma mater to receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree. The presentation was held at the commencement ceremony for the School of Medicine and Dentistry May 14 in Kodak Hall's Eastman Theatre on the campus. Distinguished physician Benjamin S. Carson Sr., M.D. ( Exit NIEHS, director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, was also awarded an honorary degree.

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