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Environmental Factor

October 2011

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Olden honored at environmental public health conference

By Linh Pham
October 2011

left to right, Sue Curry, Ph.D., Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., and Richard Hansen

Curry, left, and Richard Hansen, right, presented Olden with the Hansen Leadership Award and Distinguished Lectureship. Made possible by a gift from Hansen and his wife, Barbara, this annual award is given to individuals exhibiting exemplary leadership and dedication to public health. (Photo courtesy of the UI College of Public Health)

Liam O'Fallon, to the right

According to O'Fallon, right, a recurring theme for advancing environmental health policy is connecting scientific data with stories from the rural community. “To be effective, you have to put a face to the science,” he emphasized. (Photo courtesy of Justin Crane)

second from right, Claudia Thompson, Ph.D. along with other grantees at the round table

In addition to Anderson and O'Fallon, NIEHS representatives Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., second from right, and Kristianna Pettibone, Ph.D., not shown, were also in attendance, along with 25 grantees who are part of PEPH. The overarching goal of this conference was to encourage policy and decision makers to develop strategies for engaging local communities and policy makers to improve environmental health. (Photo courtesy of Justin Crane)

Beth Anderson at the podium

“The strength of this conference was the engaging presentations followed by very participatory round table discussions,” Anderson explained. The breakout sessions were focused on decision-making processes at the level of state government and comparing environmental health mobilization in urban versus rural settings. (Photo courtesy of Justin Crane)

Former NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., received the 2011 Richard and Barbara Hansen Leadership Award and Distinguished Lectureship Sept. 8 from the University of Iowa (UI) College of Public Health. This annual award honors individuals who have demonstrated exemplary leadership and sustained contributions in the health field. Presenter Sue Curry, Ph.D., dean of the UI College of Public Health, noted, “Dr. Olden is a long-time champion of community participation in the full spectrum of environmental health research.”

Olden, an advocate for environmental justice and community-engaged research since the 1990s, gave the keynote address before a standing-room-only audience at the Engaging Communities to Advance Environmental Health Policy conference held Sept. 7-8 at UI. According to NIEHS Program Analysts Beth Anderson and Liam O'Fallon, this conference included energetic presentations and round-table discussions during the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) workshop on engaging policy- and decision-makers, with panel discussions on the important contributions of community-engaged research, and talks about rural environmental issues at the National Workshop and Environmental Justice Listening Session.

Hansen Award recipients are selected based on sustained and nationally recognized excellence, vision and ability to inspire others, and significant contributions to improving public health. In addition to receiving the award and delivering the keynote lecture, Olden also spent the day interacting with the extended UI community, students, and outside groups in seminars, small group activities, and other UI campus events.

Olden comes full circle with environmental justice advocacy

Olden is currently professor and founding dean of the City University of New York School of Public Health. During his tenure as NIEHS director, Olden promoted public health, community-based participatory research, children's health, and environmental justice. According to the University of Iowa press release about the award, “[Olden positioned] the institute to play an increasingly important role, as public policy makers seek to balance human health needs with the economic benefits of commercial processes that might endanger that health.”

In his leadership of both NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, Olden moved towards integrating basic research and toxicology with public health and environmental justice initiatives. Anderson stressed that a poignant aspect of this meeting was that it highlighted the products of Olden's efforts to promote environmental public health. “Dr. Olden was instrumental for supporting the programs that are now a part of PEPH. At this meeting, he was able to interact with PEPH grantees, observe environmental justice issues receiving federal priority again, and participate in the Environmental Justice Listening Session.”

Environmental factors may be more influential than genetics

During his presentation, Olden stressed, “The environment is extremely important to your health - possibly more important than genetics.” He advocated a new model for research that is more focused on epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression caused by structural changes rather than the underlying genetic sequence.

O'Fallon noted of Olden's unique perspective, “There is a mismatch between the environment and genetics. The environment is changing faster than our genomes can adapt.” According to Olden, the genetic sequence of an individual remains mostly unchanged throughout life, whereas the epigenome changes in response to environmental exposures such as pesticides, diet, stress, and many other factors. Olden concluded, “Understanding the role of epigenetic mechanisms in human health and disease is one of the highest priorities in medical research.”

(Linh Pham, Ph.D., is on detail as a program analyst in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

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