Environmental Factor, July 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Collman inspires Stony Brook graduates
By Ed Kang
Collman joked that it was her mother's desire for her to attend Stony Brook - just a short train ride away from her home - that helped her make the decision to seek an undergraduate degree from Binghamton. "But her wish that I participate in commencement at Stony Brook finally came to fruition," Collman quipped. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Mastrogiovanni)
NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., welcomed from the academic ranks a new generation of future leaders in public health. For the 125 conferees, faculty, and esteemed guests of the Graduate Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, Collman's keynote address May 24 reflected on her study of environmental risk factors for breast cancer on Long Island and how those challenges helped shape the landscape for future population research.
The lessons of Long Island
Karen Miller, a founder of Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition(http://www.hbcac.org/) and member of the NIEHS Public Interest Partners(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/community/publicinterest/index.cfm) group, introduced Collman as a valued partner to the university - one with deep ties to Long Island. Indeed, in her former role as NIEHS program administrator, Collman spent a decade, beginning in the mid-1990s, looking at environmental causes of breast cancer among Long Island women. In her commencement speech, she spoke inspiringly of the lessons learned from the 10 years she, and many others, spent trying to decipher the causes of what was perceived as a cancer hot spot.
One of those lessons was the recognition of community relationships in the research process. "Community connections are an integral part of the research process, and their concerns about environmental hazards in their neighborhoods, and how it affects their health and the health of their children, are paramount. These relationships really make or break a study," Collman explained.
"Some of the most interesting times were when community members took me in their cars, or on walks to show me what their neighborhoods look like and what they are dealing with." These "toxic tours" as Collman called them, can sometimes have a game-changing effect.
But, Collman also noted how anxious the Long Island community was to have research point to a definitive cause for why breast cancer was seemingly so prevalent. "We had to plan for that by having a shared understanding between scientists and the participants, to understand what research really means and what can be found and what can't. We won't have all the answers when we want them, but we can keep working towards answers."
According to Collman, the women of the community eventually saw the Long Island Breast Cancer Study as a national resource - the beginning of a relationship with the government, and an investment and commitment to continue to work on these problems. Other research has used the Long Island work as a springboard, and Collman credits the study as an evolutionary influence in current translational research, where community tie-in is integral.
Opportunities abound for new graduates
The final lesson offered to the graduates was one of perspective on the question of "What's next?" - a concern many in the audience were sharing as they transition from academia to the professional ranks. Collman was quick to paint a positive employment picture for graduates. "It takes many types of scientists, in many discipline areas, to unravel the clues of complex diseases. That's where you come in," she comforted. "Whether you work in scientific, regulatory, public policy formation or the health communication side of public health, you have the best new methods and technologies at your disposal."
Closing out the day for graduates, Collman concluded her talk with a challenge to those on the verge of new careers: "Be bold and reach out to the communities which you will serve. Your work will be richer for it, the discoveries will be more relevant, and the messages will be clearer because of the dialog which you initiated."
Visit culminates with Alda meeting
Collman's recent visit to the campus of Stony Brook University included several stops to network with faculty from various departments.
Accompanied by Miller, Collman met with faculty from the Consortium for Inter-Disciplinary Environmental Research (CIDER). This initiative(http://www.stonybrook.edu/CIDER/index.html) brings together faculty from diverse disciplines to create synergistic collaborations that address large, complex environmental issues. The participants in CIDER are associated with departments in Arts and Sciences, Engineering, the School of Medicine, and the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
Collman also spent time with the Center for Communicating Science, a program(http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/) that seeks to train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public. In addition to the dean and members of the center, Collman spoke via Skype with famed actor and faculty member, Alan Alda, to discuss their shared passion for communicating science.
(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)