NIEHS celebrated 50 years of environmental health research with a community forum held, for the first time, in its own backyard. Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program director, joined four local grantees Feb. 18 at RTP 180 — a monthly event in Research Triangle Park (RTP) that takes on topics from music and gaming to biomedical research, in a casual format that encourages audience involvement.
The sold-out event drew more than 300 people who wanted to learn more about the topic of gene-environment interactions. The forum was held just down the road from NIEHS, at The Frontier, a free space for those who need a work or meeting place.
Speakers in addition to Birnbaum included four scientists from the local area.
- Susan Sumner, Ph.D., from RTI International.
- Dave Peden, M.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University.
- Joel Meyer, Ph.D., from Duke University.
The RTP 180 series, with a focus on the emerging technologies and trends, attracts employees of the high tech, biotech, pharmaceutical, and other companies located in RTP. Yet the diverse nature of events ensures a wide range of participants from across the local area.
“This was a fun gathering,” Birnbaum said. “We’re trying to reach out to different audiences with our community forums and this was very different. Plus, I enjoyed talking with folks right in our backyard.”
Five-minute talks keep energy high
Each speaker was given five minutes — strictly and humorously enforced — to discuss their research, with time for audience questions after each presentation. The format guaranteed a lively evening, with emcee Will Hardison, a local entrepreneur and DJ, providing comic relief during transitions.
Birnbaum opened with an overview of NIEHS, which was the first major tenant to commit to build in RTP and has been here for the past 50 years. “We pump more than $250 million into the local economy,” she said, citing a total budget of about $790 million.
She also discussed the mission and research of the institute, much of which is aimed at uncovering interactions between genes and the environment, including the Sister Study, focused on breast cancer, and the Agricultural Health Study, which studies pesticide exposures among participants in North Carolina and Iowa.
From metabolites to mitochondria
Sumner discussed metabolomics, the study of metabolites in an organism. She studies metabotypes, or biochemical fingerprints, to learn more about disease and exposures. Sumner took a lighthearted approach when explaining the complex analyses performed on samples of blood and other tissues. “I used to spin thread in a mill during summers in high school. Compared to that, talking to you guys is really easy,” she said.
Peden, a pediatric allergist, combined his discussion of air pollution and asthma attacks with advice on avoiding impacts to personal health. He suggested exercising in the morning on days with poor air quality, trying to live and work more than 500 meters from highways, and getting involved in local communities to raise awareness.
Patisaul studies sex differences in brains and neurodevelopment, and how chemicals might interfere with that process. She uses prairie voles, because they bond to partners, much like humans do. Patisaul explained gene-environment interactions by saying that, in the case of an individual with a gene variant more susceptible to a certain chemical, having that gene was like being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Meyer, an environmental toxicologist, talked about how environmental toxicants can affect the DNA of mitochondria, which produce the energy crucial to cellular processes, in his presentation on Poisons in the Powerhouse.
Emphasizing the value of community involvement, Birnbaum highlighted upcoming NIEHS events during this anniversary year and encouraged the standing-room-only crowd to check the institute website for a detailed list.