A conversation with Sally Perreault Darney, the new head of Environmental Health Perspectives.
By Gabe Rivin
Sally Perreault Darney tends to say “we” when she’s talking about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She laughs when she catches herself, and admits it’s a deeply ingrained habit.
That she has the habit makes sense, because for more than 30 years Darney worked at the EPA in Research Triangle Park. For nearly 25 of those years, she researched reproductive toxicology. Later she ascended into supervisory roles and helped set the course for the agency’s health research.
But now the “we” of the EPA will have to become “they.” That’s because at the end of August, Darney took the position of editor-in-chief at Environmental Health Perspectives, one of the country’s most respected research journals and a free, open-access publication that’s funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
To learn more about Darney’s vision for the journal, North Carolina Health News sat down with her in her new office in Morrisville, near NIEHS’s campus.
NCHN: What’s most exciting for you in environmental health sciences right now?
Darney: One of my favorites is life-course health, the appreciation that your health as an adult is a function of what you were exposed to when you were in utero, when you were a child and breast feeding, when you were in school, in day care.
An emerging area is how the microbiome – the critters, the bacteria and little bugs that live inside us – can also influence our health and our internal environment. That’s a really hot area.
Another area where we see a lot more integrative types of papers is the use of layered maps, which let you look at multiple factors in geographic sets. If you’re looking at a city, you might look at where the hospitals are, where the schools are, and you can ask questions about the relationship between the natural environment and the built environment and the health of people living in that one location.
There’s a big revolution with toxicity testing, called Tox21. There is a lot of really hot science that, in the future, should make it possible to predict the toxicity much more efficiently of thousands of chemicals, rather than needing to test them one at a time in animals.
NCHN: The Research Triangle seems like a unique place for environmental-health research. What’s happening here that isn’t happening in other places?
Darney: I think the decision years ago to locate NIEHS here, as opposed to in Bethesda, where all the other institutions are, and to locate EPA’s Office of Research and Development here, created a concentration of environmental health research that had a lot of governmental clout behind it. So that was kind of the groundwork.
And I think that encouraged the local universities – like Duke and N.C. State and UNC – to expand their environmental-health programs. Now they’re all powerhouses. So then you put all these people together and you have a critical mass of expertise in one place. That attracts new scientists to this area.
NCHN: What influenced you to go into this field?
Darney: I’m a child of the ‘60s. John F. Kennedy, in founding the Peace Corps, I think, set up in my generation a motivation for service. And that was an era with the first Earth Day and The Population Bomb. Both of those interacted with me, in terms of my strong interest in reproductive health and women being able to understand their health and how to plan their family.
When I interviewed [at EPA], I realized there were some great people doing a variety of research – whether you’re looking at contraceptive development, which was my first interest, or you’re looking to develop chemical ways to prevent pregnancy.
NCHN: You’ve got a distinctive background as a researcher, a federal employee and a journal editor. How does that influence your approach at EHP?
Darney: Having first-hand research experience is critical because I’ve been at the other end of the peer review. Working as an associate editor and an editor for several small journals made me very familiar with what it takes to do good peer review.
In some of the work I did at EPA as a program planner, I was working with a team of leaders, looking at what we should be researching: How do you identify the most important environmental-health problems to fund? That gave me a broader picture of what will have an impact on the field.
NHCN: What’s a research journal’s role in reaching a mainstream audience?
Darney: EHP includes a big news section. We have a news editor. That’s one of the things about the journal that really attracted me to this job.
I think scientists really struggle to communicate their findings, which are often very technical and complex to a lay audience – an audience that has different agendas.
Our stakeholders include teachers, physicians, parents and other students in other fields. Non-academic stakeholders really don’t want to read peer-reviewed journal articles. They want the bigger picture. They want to see what’s been published in the last five or 10 years. A news article can do that.
NHCN: Sometimes it’s hard for non-scientists to read about, say, BPA, and then to feel like they have any kind of confidence making decisions for themselves.
Darney: The public gets bombarded with a variety of information. Some of it is inflammatory. Some of it is cautionary. For some of it, the source has an agenda.
What’s important is to try to provide very trustworthy information that can help people make their own choices. And that may be to say, “We don’t know the answer to this in any great detail. The science is divided.”
To have a reputation that says this is reliable information, I think, makes the public feel more confident that the decisions they are making are valid. And then, of course, the information in scientific journals is used by policy-makers, who then can make more official public health recommendations.
NCHN: Where would you like to see the journal grow over the short, medium or long term?
Darney: I think the challenge will be to move into these new [research] areas and publish a variety of articles that help link them together, taking a more systems approach to the whole question of environmental health.
Evolving with technology, we already have ceased publishing in paper. We think there may be some new tools for making information more searchable, more accessible. That will help the readers.
NCHN: What’s your perspective on having publicly funded research available for free to the public?
Darney: As a taxpayer, I can say, “My taxes support this research, I want to be able to read it.” On the other hand, the publishers have to exist and they have to have their expenses paid.
And so a lot of times it’s not only the government that’s paying for the research; the government is paying to make it accessible. The author has a grant from the government. The grant has built into it publication charges, which [researchers] pay the publisher so that their paper can be published … and made accessible to everybody.
It’s a little complicated, isn’t it? But we’ve shown that it can be done, and I think it’s a pretty reasonable investment.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.