NIEHS promoted novel statistical applications and grant writing resources through workshops at the 2016 Epidemiology Congress of the Americas meeting in Miami June 21-24.
Bonnie Joubert, Ph.D., and Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D., program directors in the Population Health Branch of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, co-led “Epidemiological approaches to assessing health effects of environmental mixtures.” In the workshop, they presented new applications of statistical techniques to understand how exposure to many environmental factors at once can affect health.
“Real-world environmental exposures occur in mixtures that are too complex for traditional statistical models,” explained Joubert. “Not only are there many factors to consider simultaneously, but they are often related to each other, may interact, and may involve complex biological processes.”
There were several unique components of this workshop. Presenters demonstrated sample runs of the methods and led a hands-on exercise to implement the methods in real-world and example datasets.
Analyzing exposure to mixtures in the environment
Over sixty participants filled the room to learn about the four methods (see sidebar), run statistical analyses, and ask questions. They were mostly epidemiologists with methodological interests, and few had attended the mixtures workshop hosted by NIEHS in 2015.
“Our goal was to engage epidemiologists in statistical analysis of mixtures, using actual datasets,” said Dilworth. “Each of the four methods presented has unique aspects to consider in order to use it appropriately.”
Participants enjoyed the chance to learn statistical methods that can address a major challenge in environmental epidemiology. “My dissertation focuses on the health effects of exposure to multiple persistent organic pollutants — PCBs, PBBs, and PBDEs. These chemicals are highly correlated, so standard analytic techniques may not suffice,” said Melanie Jacobson, doctoral student at Emory University. “The workshop provided some very useful tools for analyzing this type of data.”
Joan Casey, Ph.D., a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the University of California, San Francisco, plans to apply these methods to understand how environmental and social stressors combine to affect health near unconventional natural gas development, or fracking, operations. “We live in a mixture. We will never be able to implement an intervention while holding other factors constant,” she said. "These methods get us closer to reality and, therefore, I think they get us closer to answering questions that will enable us to improve population health.”
Resources for successful grants
In the “Navigating the NIH funding system” workshop, the NIH grants process and information on specific opportunities was discussed. The session was led by Dilworth; Joubert; Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training; Valerie Durrant, Ph.D., of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review; and Donna Rivera, Pharm.D., program director in the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Branch of the National Cancer Institute.
Alfonso Latoni, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Scientific Review Branch, led a mock grant review. A panel of NIEHS grantees, along with Dilworth and NIEHS Scientific Review Officer Linda Bass, Ph.D., simulated a typical grant application review meeting, demonstrating common scenarios and discussions of grant applications among scientific peer reviewers.
“Every time I sit down to work on my grants, I’m thinking about what the reviewers are thinking,” said Ashley Naimi, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “So it was helpful to put some structure to the black box.”
Nadia Abuelezam, Sc.D., assistant professor at Boston College, appreciated the advice she received from the panel. “It was really helpful to have experienced reviewers on the workshop panel, because they provided feedback about experiences they’ve had during past reviews,” she said.
(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.)