On July 9, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., announced that she will retire on Oct. 3. Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., will step up as acting director until new leadership is selected after a national search by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Birnbaum’s career as a federal scientist and leader spans more than 40 years, including work at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Under Linda’s leadership, NIEHS became a world leader in toxicology and environmental health research, with NIEHS science inspiring health policy and safety standards in the United States and abroad,” wrote NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., in a press release. “It has been my privilege to work with Linda. She is an enthusiastic, accomplished, and caring scientist who has provided dedicated scientific leadership to NIEHS and the NTP since 2009.”
Collins highlights accomplishments
Birnbaum was the first woman and the first board-certified toxicologist to lead the 53-year-old institute, Collins noted, mentioning other career highlights as well.
- Leadership for important trans-NIH research projects following the 2014 West Virginia chemical spill and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “Both studies required effective coordination with scientists across NIH, and with the residents of affected areas,” wrote Collins.
- Publication of NTP scientific reports, such as the bi-annual Report on Carcinogens, which presents major scientific analyses of substances in our environment that may cause cancer.
- Establishment of a national network of exposure assessment laboratories with an innovative grant program called Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource.
- Strengthening of the NIEHS-funded Children’s Centers, which were originally co-sponsored with EPA.
- Work with environmental justice communities.
- Opening of the NIEHS Clinical Research Unit.
- Active support for the NIH Women in Biomedical Research Program.
“Linda’s passion for leading NIEHS has been unmistakable and she has implemented two strategic plans during her tenure,” Collins continued. “She has been a strong proponent of community-based participatory research, and she has actively engaged local residents in identifying, planning, and reporting on environmental conditions that require both basic and applied research to understand potential health effects.”
Birnbaum’s passion for prevention of health effects is well known to those who have worked with her or heard her speak at scientific and community programs.
“Our focus is on preventing disease and disability from the environment,” she wrote in a letter to employees announcing her retirement. “You have all heard me say, many times, that it is better to prevent a disease than to have to treat it, and that it’s easier to change your environment than to change your genes.”
She emphasized that NIEHS, by working in harmony, makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts. “NIEHS is a wonderful organization in all ways, especially the terrific people. It has been my honor to be your leader,” Birnbaum wrote.
She had particular praise for Woychik. “Rick and I have had a great partnership and I have full confidence in his leadership as I step down in October,” said Birnbaum.
“My way is clear,” said Woychik, when asked what scientists can expect as he takes the reins later this year. “The new strategic plan lays out our priorities and we’ve already started moving forward on them. My focus will be to work with the Leadership Committee to implement the plan.”