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Environmental Factor, July 2015

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Council digs into a day of data

By Ernie Hood

Cindy Lawler

“Data science is one of the cross-cutting themes in our strategic plan,” said Lawler, who leads a workgroup focused on coordinating data science across the NIEHS grant programs. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Feinberg and Miranda

Miranda, right, and Feinberg, both made valuable contributions to the data science discussion. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Linda Birnbaum

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., relayed potentially good budget news — the American Cures Act could bring NIH an additional $10 billion over the next five years. “It’s got a fairly good chance of moving forward [in Congress],” she said, “so we are guardedly hopeful.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

At the June 2 145th session of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council, big data emerged as a theme among the many topics covered during the day. Collaborations, big data, data sharing, and data science are increasingly important considerations for the entire scientific community. And when it comes to data, the field of environmental health sciences faces its own challenges and opportunities.

Starting the conversation

NIEHS used the session to mine the experience and wisdom of council members on how to move forward in data science and serve the needs of researchers. “We are enablers of research here at NIEHS, so we want to understand how these issues impact the way all of you do your work,” said session moderator Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., from the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). Council members responded with a robust discussion of their data needs and suggested future directions.

Lawler broadly defined data science as being concerned with the so-called four Vs — volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Marie Lynn Miranda, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, homed in on the third. “I would make the case that NIEHS has a comparative advantage in approaching and focusing on the variety,” she observed. “And in order to do that, there needs to be a little bit of culture change at the institute and amongst the broad community of people associated with it.”

Specifically, Miranda advocated for increased support of training in data sciences and enhanced efforts to make NIEHS programs more conducive to the involvement of statisticians and informaticians in research.

Council member Andrew Feinberg, M.D., from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, emphasized the need for standardization. “The environmental health issue is [that] we need to define rigorous standards for the sorts of data that will be collected,” he said. By falling into certain acceptable ranges, he added, such data will be more useful and translatable across other studies.

Other data matters

DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., also discussed data science in her division update, with a focus on data sharing and the institute’s substantial investments in environmental epidemiology. She announced the launch of the Epidemiology Resources Catalog, a new online resource for researchers and the public that provides information about DERT cohort, case-control, and cross-sectional studies.

“Our goal is to facilitate new collaborations, or support existing collaborations, maximizing our investments in these areas,” she said. The first of three planned phases — a searchable table — is now online, to be followed by individual detailed pages for each listed grant, and improved search and filter functions.

Philip Bourne, Ph.D., associate director for data science at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), participated remotely, giving a talk titled “NIH as a Digital Experience.” He defined the data science goals of NIH, and discussed the five action areas in the NIH data science strategy — sustainability, workforce development and diversity, discovery and innovation, policy and process, and leadership. The mission is, he said, “to foster a sustainable, efficient, and productive data science ecosystem.”

Beyond the data

Although data dominated the day, the councilors also approved a concept to upgrade infrastructure and methodological support for environmental epidemiology studies. The concept was presented by Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator in DERT.

The council also received updates from John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor on public health, regarding the NIEHS Global Environmental Health (GEH) program. Mike Humble, Ph.D., also in DERT, briefed the group on the Undergraduate Research Education Program (UP), which is designed to enhance diversity in the environmental health sciences (see story).

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

  • Allen Wilcox

    Wilcox (see text box), a senior investigator in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, presented the science talk to the council. He is past president of the American Epidemiological Society and the Society for Epidemiologic Research, and until recently, he was editor in chief of the journal Epidemiology. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Kim Gray

    In making the case for upgrading support for environmental epidemiology studies, Kimberly Gray, Ph.D., health scientist administrator of DERT, noted that NIEHS supported development, study, or maintenance activities for 58 such studies in fiscal years 2013 and 2014. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Guilarte and McCauley

    Council members Tomas Guilarte, Ph.D., from Columbia University, and Linda McCauley, Ph.D., from Emory University, were active participants in discussions. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • John Balbus

    Balbus, who directs the NIEHS-World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences, said that from FY2012-FY2014, NIEHS supported 157 GEH research projects around the world. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

  • Mary Grant

    Mary Gant, who has been the NIEHS Legislative Liaison in Washington, D.C. since 1987, is retiring at the end of July. Birnbaum led meeting attendees in a warm round of applause in appreciation of Gant’s service. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Epidemiology: partnering with basic science by looking at the big picture

That was the mundane title of what turned out to be an amusing, enlightening, and rather provocative scientific talk given by Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., during the meeting.

Wilcox presented data from two research pursuits over the course of his 35-year career as a scientist at NIEHS — genetics and epigenetics, and fertility and reproduction. He showed how epidemiologic findings could raise a host of questions about fundamental biology.

For example, new data show a connection between a mother’s age and gene methylation in her newborn, suggesting the possibility of undiscovered mechanisms of methylation.

“Let’s talk about sex.” With a phrase one doesn’t often hear in scientific presentations, Wilcox introduced his important findings on fertility and pregnancy, including data on how long sperm survive in the female reproductive tract, and information about a potential relationship between intercourse and the timing of women’s menstrual cycles, particularly ovulation.

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