Scientists and grantees enjoy high profile at EHC summit
By Eddy Ball
Scientists supported by NIEHS were prominent on the program for the 7th annual Environmental Health Summit Nov. 4-5 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Meeting at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, attendees explored the implications of “Exposure Science in the 21st Century: Role of Citizens and Communities.” The summit was organized by the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative with support from NIEHS, area universities, and other groups concerned with environmental health.
Although the meeting highlighted three specific areas during its extended workgroup discussions — technology, data integration, and risk communication — the program was united by the theme of community engagement as the driver for study design, data collection and return, and translation of community-based environmental health research. This new approach is quickly effacing the conventional academic top-down focus on researcher interests and priorities, such as publications and tenure, in community-based environmental health research projects.
The plenary speakers and workgroup panelists echoed a telling comment from the first morning by NIEHS grantee Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H., an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Environmental health research should be conducted with members of the community — not on them,” she explained. “I see myself in collaboration with them [from planning to completion of the research project].”
Lessons from the report
A major inspiration for the summit was the 2012 report by a special committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Exposure Science in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy. On hand to describe the background and conclusions of the report was the first plenary speaker of the summit, committee member Paul Gilman, Ph.D., senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for Covanta Energy.
Not surprisingly, Gilman focused his talk on chapter six of the report, “Promoting and Sustaining Public Trust in Exposure Science.” No matter how ambitious the project or how elegantly fit-for-use the technology employed, Gilman said, “We cannot reach the vision [of meaningful exposure science research] without trust.… Communities are not just where we do science, but the key to whether and how we do it.”
Exposure science at NIEHS
After nearly a full first day of workgroup discussions, the meeting convened for two more plenary talks on day two by NIEHS Deputy Director Richard Woychik, Ph.D., and Duke University Cancer Center Deputy Director Steven Patierno, Ph.D.
Woychik discussed “NIEHS: Where Exposure and Citizen Science Meet” with an overview of NIEHS programs promoting the development of leading-edge monitoring technology, community-based participatory research, environmental justice, and a better understanding of the concept of the exposome. He tied work underway by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is headquartered at NIEHS, the NIEHS Superfund Research Program, and the NIEHS Exposure Biology Program to the institute’s strategic plan.
Throughout his talk, Woychik underscored the NIEHS commitment to advancing community-engaged research for improving public health.
Risk and translation — the urban epidemic of prostate cancer
In his talk, Patierno discussed “Innovation in Environmental Health Sciences: The Intersection Between Community Engagement and the Human Exposome.” He described how community engagement drives a broad spectrum of laboratory, population level, and health services research conducted by him at Duke and with a cohort of 6,000 African-American males in Washington, D.C. on prostate cancer risk and outcomes.
With interests in epidemiology, gene-environment interactions, health disparities, and global health, Patierno conveyed his enthusiasm for a trans-disciplinary approach and the challenges of uncovering meaningful environmental exposures that threaten health. “There’s an enormous amount of information that we need new technologies to process,” he said.
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As part of its mission as a clearinghouse for environmental health information, the Environmental Health Collaborative has posted presentations and working group recommendations online. Materials are available for each of the seven environmental health summits it has organized since the first one of the series in 2008.