The NIEHS Partners, representatives of nonprofits and health advocates, held its annual in-person meeting Nov. 17. The member organizations share the institute’s research with the communities they serve. In turn, they share with NIEHS the environment and health concerns of their respective communities, helping to inform NIEHS research priorities.
The annual event is normally held in Washington, D.C., but this year, in honor of the institute’s 50th anniversary, they met at the NIEHS campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
The group’s annual meetings feature an in-depth session, described by some as unique, with NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. The event included meeting face-to-face with scientists who have participated in recent years in monthly conference calls on environmental health topics suggested by the members (see sidebar). Together, the calls and meetings strengthen communication between NIEHS and its stakeholders.
Tour and conversation with director
John Schelp, NIEHS special assistant for community engagement and outreach, and coordinator of the group, led a tour of NIEHS laboratories and other facilities. As they moved through the building, a warm collegiality among the members was evident.
“This group is unique,” said co-chair Karen Miller, from the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition. Her comment spoke to the two-way communication between the representatives and NIEHS leadership.
“I do enjoy these gatherings,” Birnbaum said afterwards. “We share a relaxed meal and just talk informally for two and a half hours. It's important for me to hear what's happening, from health groups around the country. After all, we stand on common ground, working to improve health and prevent disease."
According to Schelp, the meeting’s format is key to its success. “It’s unprogrammed — there are no slides, no agenda,” he said. “Everyone shares their highlights and challenges, one at a time, and the director responds to each of them.”
Representatives discussed recently launched projects and roadblocks to making progress on prevention. The discussion ranged from mercury exposure, dioxin contamination, and emerging chemicals of concern, to public information campaigns and funding successes.
“We have to figure out how we can push forward a preventive approach to disease onset," Miller said. “And that’s what we’re all here to do — listen to each other’s ideas and glean the parts that resonate with our constituency. The team approach makes our work more effective."
Voices on the phone
After meeting with Birnbaum, the members were joined by the scientists, whom Schelp referred to as the Voices on the Phone. From the dozens of researchers who have spoken with NIEHS Partners in recent years, eight came in and gave flash reports, updating the group since they last spoke. They described where they see their area of science or their program is heading, as well as challenges to advancement, whether scientific, technical, or logistical.
The participants use what they learn about environmental exposures and health to inform their group’s prevention efforts, priorities for research, and public communications.
“It give us hope to know we’re not alone, in either the research or the education,” said Mary Lou Ballweg, president of the Endometriosis Association. “Sometimes you feel like you’re struggling all by yourself, then you hear from these scientists who really know what is going on.”
And, as Birnbaum observed, the benefits go both ways. Rick Paules, Ph.D., from NTP, began his report with a note of gratitude. “Thanks for being here,” he said. “We really appreciate your interest in what we’re doing and your support. It’s critical for us.”