"Our goal at NIEHS is to make sure that the environment's impact on global health is well understood," said Trisha Castranio, coordinator for the NIEHS Global Environmental Health Program and lead organizer of the Sept. 15 event.
"This is an opportunity to share what NIEHS is doing in environmental health with the global health community, and to learn from others," said John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor on public health. He described important parts of the NIEHS GEH program, including partnerships with the World Health Organization and other institutions.
The Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, where NIEHS is located, is home to a number of global health organizations and initiatives. To foster greater connection among them and with other participants, the meeting agenda included significant time for audience questions and discussion, as well as a networking lunch.
The keynote address was given by Sujata Saunik, former secretary for the Department of Health and Family Welfare for the state of Maharashtra, India, which includes Mumbai and extensive rural areas. Secretary Saunik is currently a fellow in the Takemi Program in International Health at Harvard University.
Saunik described her work in Maharashtra to build home toilets, enlist children in the collection of plastic waste, and provide safe drinking water in poor communities. She stressed the importance of avoiding silos of scientific discipline or economic sector, and instead, of meeting community needs in an integrated manner. "These initiatives brought a huge transformation," Saunik said. "They involved people, made them own [the project], and made them run it."
She stressed that success depended on partnering with local communities, listening to their needs, and designing solutions accordingly.
Claire Neal, Dr.P.H., executive director of the Triangle Global Health Consortium (TGHC; see sidebar), moderated a panel on community-engaged research, which refers to collaborations between scientists and local communities. The researchers involve the communities from the earliest phases, including design of the research questions to be studied. It is proving to be a powerful model, according to the speakers.
"We've seen how research benefits from the active involvement of local communities," said panelist Symma Finn, Ph.D., program director of the NIEHS Population Health Branch.
Keith Martin, M.D., executive director of the 163-member Consortium of Universities for Global Health, described how the approach serves local needs. "Research through community engagement is done by and for communities," said Martin, a former member of the Canadian Parliament. "It's an incredible way to empower them."
Liam O'Fallon, who leads the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health, moderated a session on citizen science. This approach involves local citizens in collecting data that scientists will use to answer a research question.
"Citizen science has skyrocketed to national attention in the last four years," he said. "It is a powerful way of engaging with our community partners who are motivated to answer questions of interest to them." Panelists described projects in the U.S. and abroad.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) involves local residents in monitoring air pollution. Ron Williams, research chemist with the EPA National Exposure Research Laboratory, provided examples of how EPA has met some of the challenges of working with residents. "They desperately need tools and education," he said. EPA developed an Air Sensor Toolbox as one way to meet this need.
The Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, a network of 30,000 people worldwide, involves teachers and students in mapping mosquito populations in Peru and Brazil. “People are struggling with dengue fever and the Zika virus,” said Russanne Low, Ph.D., a senior earth scientist from the institute. Her work targets the vectors that spread diseases.
Gabriel Filippelli, Ph.D., described involving residents in mapping lead content of soil in older, underserved neighborhoods. Filippelli directs the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University — Purdue University of Indianapolis.
A poster session featured “Voices From the Field” — talks by the poster presenters to provide more detail on their research projects.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)