Five NIEHS alumni returned Jan. 22 to help kickoff a yearlong celebration of the institute’s 50th anniversary. The event drew an overflow crowd of employees, retirees, and friends, who listened to stories and highlights of the alumni’s time at NIEHS.
John Schelp from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity served as moderator and led off the program with a talk about the transformative impact of NIEHS as the first major tenant to commit to build in Research Triangle Park (RTP).
Like the speakers who followed his lead, Schelp reflected on the sense of small town community and feeling of pride and fellowship that characterizes the work environment at NIEHS. This is perhaps fostered by the distance of NIEHS from the main National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland, where the other 26 institutes and centers have their headquarters and share centralized resources.
A family that laughs together, stays together
In her opening remarks, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., offered a contemporary perspective that framed talks by important figures from the first 50 years of NIEHS. “This is really our homecoming,” she said, “and it’s really fabulous to see so many of our former NIEHSers here coming to celebrate with us.”
The guests, all former leaders in the institute, each shared fond memories of former director David Rall, M.D., Ph.D.
• Former Executive Officer Charles Leasure — 1984-1998.
• Former NTP Associate Director George Lucier, Ph.D. — 1969-2000.
• Former Scientific Director John McLachlan, Ph.D. — 1972-1995.
• Former NIEHS and NTP director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D. — 1991-2005.
• Former Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Director Anne Sassaman, Ph.D. — 1986-2006
Given the vibrant personalities of the guests, it wasn’t surprising that their talks were punctuated by laughter from the audience and fellow speakers. Comments and asides made light of thinning hair, practical jokes, an early-year substitute for a cafeteria known as the roach coach, and oddities among people who often played as hard as they worked.
Pride in five decades of accomplishments
Birnbaum’s opening remarks set the tone for the unanimous sense of accomplishment expressed by the speakers. “I believe our country is healthier because of NIEHS research,” she said. “We’ve built NIEHS into the world’s premier environmental health research organization.”
In their individual talks, the guests added to Birnbaum’s list of NIEHS accomplishments, including the following highlights.
• Building a campus and labs, separate from NIH.
• The evolution of molecular and mechanisms-based toxicology and the founding of NTP.
• Establishing what is now a major journal in the field of environmental health, Environmental Health Perspectives.
• Groundbreaking studies in endocrine disruption.
• Dramatically expanding the extramural grants program.
• Establishing community engagement, alternative testing, and specialized programs addressing children’s health and environmental justice, under Olden’s leadership.
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)