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National Toxicology Program

National Toxicology Program

UPDATE NewsletterUPDATE NewsletterFebruary 2016

NIEHS 50th anniversary kickoff welcomed retirees, celebrated high times

By Eddy Ball
Reprinted from Environmental Factor

Five NIEHS alumni returned Jan. 22 to help kickoff a yearlong celebration of the institute’s 50th anniversary. The event drew an overflow crowd of employees, retirees, and friends, who listened to stories and highlights of the alumni’s time at NIEHS.

John Schelp from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity served as moderator and led off the program with a talk about the transformative impact of NIEHS as the first major tenant to commit to build in Research Triangle Park (RTP).

Like the speakers who followed his lead, Schelp reflected on the sense of small town community and feeling of pride and fellowship that characterizes the work environment at NIEHS. This is perhaps fostered by the distance of NIEHS from the main National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland, where the other 26 institutes and centers have their headquarters and share centralized resources.

A family that laughs together, stays together

In her opening remarks, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., offered a contemporary perspective that framed talks by important figures from the first 50 years of NIEHS. “This is really our homecoming,” she said, “and it’s really fabulous to see so many of our former NIEHSers here coming to celebrate with us.”

The guests, all former leaders in the institute, each shared fond memories of former director David Rall, M.D., Ph.D.

• Former Executive Officer Charles Leasure — 1984-1998.

• Former NTP Associate Director George Lucier, Ph.D. — 1969-2000.

• Former Scientific Director John McLachlan, Ph.D. — 1972-1995.

• Former NIEHS and NTP director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D. — 1991-2005.

• Former Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Director Anne Sassaman, Ph.D. — 1986-2006

Given the vibrant personalities of the guests, it wasn’t surprising that their talks were punctuated by laughter from the audience and fellow speakers. Comments and asides made light of thinning hair, practical jokes, an early-year substitute for a cafeteria known as the roach coach, and oddities among people who often played as hard as they worked.

Pride in five decades of accomplishments

Birnbaum’s opening remarks set the tone for the unanimous sense of accomplishment expressed by the speakers. “I believe our country is healthier because of NIEHS research,” she said. “We’ve built NIEHS into the world’s premier environmental health research organization.”

In their individual talks, the guests added to Birnbaum’s list of NIEHS accomplishments, including the following highlights.

• Building a campus and labs, separate from NIH.

• The evolution of molecular and mechanisms-based toxicology and the founding of NTP.

• Establishing what is now a major journal in the field of environmental health, Environmental Health Perspectives.

• Groundbreaking studies in endocrine disruption.

• Dramatically expanding the extramural grants program.

• Establishing community engagement, alternative testing, and specialized programs addressing children’s health and environmental justice, under Olden’s leadership.

(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Several Staff Members crammed into an auditorium A standing-room-only crowd in Rodbell Auditorium, as well as others who viewed the telecast from the lobby and cafeteria, clearly enjoyed the humorous moments and many milestones noted by the speakers. (Photo courtesy of Michael Garske)
Grandfather clock standing on stage Birnbaum closed the program by unveiling the grandfather clock that will serve as the 50th anniversary time capsule. She invited employees and alumni to nominate memorabilia to help fill the case. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Gwen Collmn, Ph.D., John Bucher, Ph.D., Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Rick Woychik, Ph.D., and Darryl Zeldin, M.D. standing for a fun group photo The fun continued at a reception, with refreshments and a photo booth. Some of the NIEHS leadership team, shown hamming it up, are, left to right, DERT Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D.; NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D.; Birnbaum; NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D.; and NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Three staff members working on placing food on the refreshment display From left, Wei Qu, Julie Nixon, and Jennifer Collins put the final touches on the refreshment display, just in time for hungry attendees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
group photo of the 50th anniversary planning committee, many wearing NIEHS 50th Anniversary T-shirts The members of the kickoff event planning committee put in months of hard work to pull off an event that was enjoyed by hundreds. From left, back row — Kathryn Lawrence, Gary Bird, Nicole Popovich, Robin Mackar, Molly Vallant, Claire Long, Eli Ney; front row — Cheryl Thompson, Jennifer Collins, Julie Nixon, and Tammy Collins. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In their own words – why NIEHS stands out

• Schelp, reflecting on dying mill towns and the loss of the region’s college graduates to other places with greater opportunities — “To stop the brain drain, the state and the universities came together to create something new.… It all started with Sputnik, Silent Spring, and [North Carolina Governor] Sanford.”

• Leasure, looking back on management at NIH when he began work at the National Cancer Institute in 1966, and the much different atmosphere at NIEHS — “The people who hired me there [NIH] told me that my job was money, men, and material.… By the time I got to North Carolina, I changed that to funds, folks, and facilities.”

• Lucier, assessing the institute’s growth over 50 years — “NIEHS is respected around the world, because of its scientific excellence and for what it does in the field of environmental health.”

• Sassaman, pointing to one of the greatest challenges in her first year, with legislation creating the Superfund Research Program and Worker Training Program — “That was going to create this whole new effort for this institute.”

• McLachlan, recalling his decision between fellowship offers from Rall and Julius Axelrod, Ph.D., who won a Nobel six months later — “What I would say, it’s a choice I’ve never regretted, … to be in a place that was so open and so interesting and so outside the box.”

• Olden, underscoring the role of communication — “Environmental health is an extremely important discipline, and getting policymakers and the public, the American people, to understand that is a major effort.”

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