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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

January 2023

Celebrating 35 years of innovative Superfund research to promote health

The 2022 NIEHS Superfund Research Program annual meeting highlighted ways to promote environmental justice and reduce health disparities.

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) marked its 35th anniversary Dec. 14-17, 2022, at its first in-person annual meeting since 2019. Researchers, trainees, and community partners from across the U.S. gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, to learn about select SRP-funded projects through workshops and presentations. The SRP centers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) hosted the event.

“The theme of this year’s meeting — ‘System Approaches for Innovative and Inclusive Environmental Health Solutions’ — is very fitting because that is what SRP is all about,” said NIEHS Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., during opening remarks.

Indeed, when SRP launched in 1987 as a university-based research program, its founding philosophy — to reduce exposures to environmental contaminants through a multidisciplinary approach — was novel, according to William Suk, Ph.D., who retired as SRP’s director at the end of December.

Bill Suk, Ph.D., in front of Memory Wall
The 35th Anniversary SRP Annual Meeting coincided with Suk’s retirement as director. Attendees added photos and well wishes to a memory wall for Suk. (Photo courtesy of Mali Velasco)

“The idea of bridging biomedical research and environmental science and engineering was not heard of,” he noted. “This was totally unique.”

Open communication

More than three decades and 1,300 funded researchers later, SRP remains a pioneer in environmental health research. The annual meeting emphasized the program’s commitment to understanding and alleviating environmental health disparities, which occur when communities exposed to a combination of degraded environmental quality and social inequities endure more illness and disease than wealthier, less polluted communities.

SRP annual meeting big room
The meeting drew approximately 550 registered participants. (Photo courtesy of Julie Leibach)

A satellite session for members of SRP Research Translation and Community Engagement cores focused specifically on advancing environmental justice. During that session, members of an expert panel emphasized the value of consistent dialogue between researchers and the communities they work with.

Emmanuel Obeng Gyasi, Ph.D., Rev. William Kearney, Hon. Eva Clayton, and NCSU SRP Center trainee Krystal Taylor, of East Carolina University
From left to right: Emmanuel Obeng Gyasi, Ph.D., Rev. William Kearney, Hon. Eva Clayton, and NCSU SRP Center trainee Krystal Taylor, of East Carolina University, participated in a satellite session about environmental justice. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

“We need sustainable, long-term solutions,” said panelist Emmanuel Obeng-Gyasi, Ph.D., an environmental health scientist at North Carolina A&T State University. “It’s not enough to come in and say, ‘You’ve been exposed to certain chemicals.’ Academics need to work with communities to come up with actions and solutions to the issues. If not, it’s just fearmongering.”

However, implementing solutions — particularly at the structural level — can be challenging, as former SRP trainee Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta, Ph.D., noted during a related presentation. Drawing on a 2021 SRP-funded paper, Ramírez-Andreotta — who now leads research translation activities at the University of Arizona SRP Center — offered tips for participatory research projects aimed at structural change.

  • Engage decisionmakers from the beginning.
  • Leverage data science and data sharing.
  • Designate formal participation roles to community members.
  • Collect quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Embrace local knowledge.
  • Challenge the typical four-year grant cycle.

As Obeng-Gyasi observed, “Work together, meet regularly. Nothing happens by just being alone. Bring together affected community members, activists, and allies. It’s a collaborative effort, especially for marginalized communities.”

Keynote speakers also reminded researchers to check their own biases. Kim Fortun, Ph.D., a cultural analyst at the University of California, Irvine, explained how people’s social and cultural experiences frame their perspective.

In a similar vein, guest speaker Jonathan Jackson, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, called for improved measures of diversity in clinical research. He challenged researchers to consider how they design and implement studies, select participants, and choose variables. Race, for example, is typically a poor proxy for socioeconomic factors.

SRP poster session main hall
Hundreds of posters showcased SRP-funded research, spurring lively discussions. (Photo courtesy of Julie Leibach)

“When we make assumptions about the kinds of barriers groups face, we need to make sure we back that up with some sort of quantifiable evidence,” Jackson said. “Diversity, equity, justice — these are not things that are antithetical to rigorous science.”

Emphasis on training

Since its inception, SRP has supported more than 2,500 trainees as the next generation of scientific leaders. During the meeting, nearly 200 current and former trainees presented their work on stage and during poster sessions, including multiple K.C. Donnelly externship recipients.

Nancy Cardona-Cordero, Ph.D., shared her findings on how pregnant women’s choice of beauty products may affect their exposure to chemicals called phthalates. Cardona-Cordero completed her externship at the University of Arizona and now works with the Northeastern University SRP Center’s Community Engagement Core.

Oregon State University SRP Center trainee Victoria Colvin described her externship work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) SRP Center. She learned how to use the CometChip assay to detect DNA damage in human lung cells exposed to a benzo(a)pyrene, a type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon.

For his externship, Matthew Dunn, a University of Rhode Island SRP Center trainee, worked with Cyclopure, Inc., an SRP-funded small business that develops technologies to rapidly remove PFAS from drinking water. He explained how he validated a novel passive sampler for PFAS, made from a sugar called cyclodextrin.

Matthew Dunn presenting
Former K.C. Donnelly externship recipient Matthew Dunn, a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island SRP Center, described his work with the SRP-funded small business Cyclopure, Inc. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

Skarlet Velasquez, a trainee with the Northeastern University SRP Center, shared her externship work analyzing exposure data collected from silicone wristbands worn by members of the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study. Velasquez completed her externship with the Dartmouth University SRP Center.

Passing the torch

Meeting attendees also honored the 2022 Wetterhahn Award winner, Amanda Armijo, D.V.M., Ph.D., of MIT. The award recognizes an outstanding graduate student or postdoctoral researcher who exhibits qualities of scientific excellence.

“Wetterhahn Award winners are part of SRP’s first-rate training program of early-career investigators,” Suk said. “These individuals are shaping the environmental health sciences.”

“I’m truly honored to have been selected for this award,” said Armijo, the 25th recipient of the prestigious honor. “There are no words that can fully express or capture my feelings.”

(Julie Leibach is a senior science writer at MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)

Rick Woychik, Ph.D. During opening remarks, Woychik thanked Suk for his leadership and vision for SRP. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Kim Fortun, Ph.D. Keynote speaker Kim Fortun, Ph.D., a cultural analyst at the University of California, Irvine, challenged researchers to remember the limitations of expertise. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Bill Suk, Amanda Armijo, David Balshaw Suk, left, and David Balshaw, Ph.D., right, the acting director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, presented Amanda Armijo, Ph.D., of the MIT SRP Center, with the annual Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Sara Ngo Y Tenlep Sara Ngo Y Tenlep, a research analyst with the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Medicine, shared her poster. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
DMAC Group During a satellite session, SRP Data Management and Analysis Core representatives discussed how to make SRP data more findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. (Photo courtesy of Adeline Lopez)
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., former director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, asked a question following a presentation. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Maria Isabel Alexander Rodriguez and poster session attendee NCSU SRP Center trainee Maria Isabel Alexander Rodriguez explained her PFAS research to a poster session attendee. (Photo courtesy of Julie Leibach)
PFAS Expert Panel - Detlef Knappe, Ph.D., of NCSU; James McCord, Ph.D., of the U.S. EPA; Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., of Duke University; Lee Ferguson, Ph.D., of Duke University; and Mark Strynar, Ph.D., of the U.S. EPA An expert panel discussed challenges to measuring and quantifying PFAS in the environment. From left to right: Detlef Knappe, Ph.D., of NCSU; James McCord, Ph.D., of the U.S. EPA; Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., of Duke University; Lee Ferguson, Ph.D., of Duke University; and Mark Strynar, Ph.D., of the U.S. EPA. (Photo courtesy of Julie Leibach)
Ivan Rusyn, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M SRP Center and Alfonso Latoni, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Scientific Review Branch Ivan Rusyn, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M SRP Center, chatted with Alfonso Latoni, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Scientific Review Branch (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Jonathan Jackson, Ph.D. Keynote speaker Jonathan Jackson, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist with Massachusetts General Hospital, cautioned investigators against making assumptions about the barriers that research participants face. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Liam O'Fallon, Sharon Croisant, Chiara Klein NIEHS health specialist Liam O’Fallon, center, caught up with Sharon Croisant, Ph.D., of the Baylor College of Medicine SRP Center, left, and Duke SRP Center community engagement coordinator Chiara Klein, right. (Photo courtesy of Adeline Lopez)
Francisco Léniz and meeting participant Francisco Léniz, a 2022 K.C. Donnelly externship recipient and doctoral student with the UK SRP Center, spoke with a fellow meeting participant. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
Heather Henry, Ph.D.; Kirsten Reid; Brittany Trottier; Bill Suk; Michelle Heacock, Ph.D.; Anna Kremer; Danielle Carlin, Ph.D. From left to right: SRP health scientist administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D.; SRP intern Kirsten Reid; SRP health specialist Brittany Trottier; Suk; SRP health scientist administrator Michelle Heacock, Ph.D.; SRP intern Anna Kremer; and SRP health scientist administrator Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., shared a smile at the end of the meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)
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