International cooperation to advance scientific research set the stage for a Jan. 13 visit to NIEHS by nine early career scientists from China. They were in the United States as part of the U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program.
The visitors hailed from prestigious research institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University, as well as from government agencies, including the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center. Their specialties ranged from disaster response and public safety, to pollution and urban ecology.
According to the State Department, the program was the eleventh U.S.-China Young Scientist Forum (YSF), and this year’s focus was environmental health.
A research institute dedicated to environmental health
At NIEHS, the visiting researchers received briefings, engaged in dialogue with scientists and leadership, and learned about the institute’s programs, including the Clinical Research Unit (CRU). Although many in the group spoke English, the interpreters who accompanied them ensured that the conversation could tackle detailed subjects and still be understood by all participants.
The briefings sparked lively dialogue and an exchange of ideas on topics such as partnerships among government agencies; citizen science and community-engaged research; studies of air pollution health effects; the WHO Collaborating Centre; and children’s environmental health research.
NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., reviewed the institute’s priorities for research, as guided by the NIEHS Strategic Plan. When he asked if they knew of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), published by NIEHS, Woychik received enthusiastic responses. The EHP News section is translated into Chinese and published online. The interpreter relayed comments such as “It’s very influential,” “The articles are valuable,” and “We read it constantly.”
From technology to systems efficiencies
Huei-Chen Lao, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, led a tour through the public parts of the institute, while describing the research conducted throughout the campus. One topic Lao touched on was the 12 research cores at NIEHS and how they foster efficient use of resources.
“Our visitors were either faculty members or administrators from highly respected research institutions,” Lao said, underscoring the prestige of being selected to join the group. “They were more interested in improving system efficiencies than technology, and we spent a lot of time discussing systems — the administration of labs, human research review boards, how scientists share the resources of the research cores, and similar topics.”
Environmental health research in RTP
In addition to NIEHS, the group visited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Research Triangle Park (RTP), Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There were a number of topics on the agenda for the two days in North Carolina, according to Augusta Philbin, the State Department program officer responsible for the exchange.
- New low-cost air quality monitoring technology; its projected impacts and current limitations; and its potential for increasing public participation in air quality data collection and analysis.
- How U.S. scientists are using low-cost monitors and working with the public to contribute to research.
- Techniques for effective public messaging to reduce the health impacts of both air and water pollution, and improve air and water quality.
Before coming to North Carolina, the scientists spent a week in Washington, D.C., where they visited the State Department, EPA, and the Wilson Center, and received numerous briefings. NIEHS Toxicology Liaison Chris Weis, Ph.D., who works out of the Bethesda, Maryland office, provided one of those briefings. He updated the group on two environmental health topics — the growing appreciation and use of Tribal Ecological Knowledge, and recent progress in the federal Toxicology in the 21st Century program, also known as Tox21.
From North Carolina, they went to Indianapolis, Indiana, then home, where they hope to continue the conversation about strategies for public engagement and the participation of citizen scientists to support better data collection and analysis; inform the public about environmental health risks; and develop meaningful strategies to reduce hazardous pollutants in air, water, and soil.