At their Sept. 10-11 meeting, members of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council gave a rousing farewell to retiring NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. Her 40-year career as a federal scientist includes 10 years as director of the institute as well as work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“I wanted to have this opportunity for members of [the] council to reflect on some personal moments and share thoughts about Linda’s leadership and what it has meant to them and the field,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT).
Collman will serve as acting assistant director for NIEHS and NTP upon Birnbaum’s departure in early October. That is when Assistant Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., will become the acting director, and Pat Mastin, Ph.D., currently the assistant DERT director, will step up to serve as DERT acting division director.
Science and leadership
Council members spoke affectionately and respectfully about Birnbaum, whose 2016 autobiographical essay is available online.
Lynn Goldman, M.D., highlighted Birnbaum’s important scientific contributions to the study of dioxins and other persistent organic pollutants. She also praised Birnbaum’s leadership of the institute and the research field.
“I have seen how proud each and every person in this community is to have her as the director … [with her] wide breadth of understanding, ability to communicate that, and insight into not only what we are doing but what we could be doing in the future,” Goldman said.
Birnbaum is a role model in a number of areas, she said.
- Science as a continuous exploration and source of joy.
- Leadership within science.
- Scientific integrity.
- Public health, her first priority.
- Clear and forthright communications.
- Moral clarity.
New level of community involvement
Other council members lauded Birnbaum’s achievements in environmental health sciences. Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., focused on Birnbaum’s pioneering promotion of community engagement. “You didn’t only talk the talk, you walked the walk,” she observed.
Her council colleague Katrina Korfmacher, Ph.D., agreed. “I want to thank Linda for her commitment for all kinds of community engagement. Her leadership helped morph NIEHS’s framework for community outreach from education to engagement … she gave it new energy, direction, and depth.”
Following a standing ovation from the council, a visibly moved Birnbaum thanked her colleagues. “If I’ve been able to provide inspiration and support and some paths going forward, I’m glad,” she said.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)