Current and former recipients of the NIEHS Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) award gathered May 17-18 to present their research and exchange ideas. In honor of the NIEHS 50th anniversary, alumni of the program also reflected on how being a ONES recipient propelled their careers in environmental health sciences.
“The ONES award has helped to bring me into a whole new field of research,” said recent awardee William Mack, M.D., who studies how particulate air pollution contributes to stroke and cerebrovascular disease at the University of Southern California. “As a neurosurgeon, it is exciting to study the environmental factors in diseases that are important to me.”
ONES recipients, who are early career scientists from a range of disciplines, perform cutting-edge research to advance understanding of how the environment affects human health.
“The ONES program gives funding for laboratories and independent research careers, but perhaps even more importantly, it provides the opportunity to build a longstanding relationship with NIEHS and other colleagues,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., in her opening remarks.
ONES sparks ground-breaking research
Several scientists said the ONES program helped to inspire new research directions. Jill Poole, M.D., associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, used her ONES award to study how the dust mixtures from swine confinement buildings affected the respiratory health of agricultural workers. According to Poole, a conversation during a ONES meeting inspired her to study possible musculoskeletal effects of exposure to the dust. Using mouse models, she found that dust-related lung injury may contribute to bone deterioration.
Ulrike Dydak, Ph.D., is a physicist at Purdue University who said she stepped into toxicology with the ONES award. Dydak developed a novel technique using MRI images of the brain to detect early onset of manganism, a Parkinson-like disease associated with occupational exposure to manganese among welders. She said that early detection of manganism is critical because there is no treatment for the disease.
Addressing fundamental questions
Researchers at the meeting are using different approaches to study mechanisms that make children especially vulnerable to environmental toxins. Joel Meyer, Ph.D., associate professor at Duke University, studies how environmental contaminants affect the DNA of mitochondria, which are the parts of cells that control cell energy production.
“Most of our studies have involved damage early in life, because this relates to the developmental origins of health and disease,” explained Meyer. “I would argue that mitochondrial impacts are potentially another important mechanism by which lifelong impacts occur.”
Neel Aluru, Ph.D., a 2015 ONES awardee from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is studying how early life exposure to environmental factors can have lifelong effects through alterations in the epigenome, or the signals that surround genes and control when genes are turned on and off. He is using zebrafish to study how the epigenome changes in response to environmental pollutants.
Christina Porucznik, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, is studying how environmental exposures in both men and women around the time of conception may affect the ability to conceive and the success of pregnancy. She has found that men with higher bisphenol-A levels have lower semen quality, although the time to conception is not affected.
Research translation to improve public health
Many of the scientists gathered for the symposium shared research that is being translated into efforts to improve public health. For example, inorganic arsenic in drinking water, which occurs naturally in certain geographic regions, has been gaining more attention due to better understanding of its damaging effects. Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), studies arsenic levels in private wells in North Carolina and is working with local governments to reduce public arsenic exposure.
In related work, Maitreyi Mazumdar, M.D., a 2016 ONES recipient affiliated with Harvard Medical School, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital, is studying the connection between prenatal arsenic exposures in Bangladesh and neural tube defects. Early results suggest that typical folic acid supplementation may be insufficient to prevent neural tube defects in areas with high arsenic levels.
Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., associate professor at Duke University, has used mass spectrometry to identify flame retardant compounds in consumer goods and to understand the ways people are exposed to these compounds. Her legislative testimony about this research has helped to limit the use of brominated flame retardants in consumer goods, including baby products.
“It’s difficult to summarize all the research we’ve done in the past eight years, all thanks to the ONES award,” said Stapleton. “It definitely helped to propel my research career.”
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)