A standing room crowd came to last week's RTP 180 event to hear NIEHS grantees discuss their work, drink beer and eat burritos.
A standing room crowd came to last week's RTP 180 event to hear NIEHS grantees discuss their work, drink beer and eat burritos. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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By Rose Hoban

If you have ever received an email from anyone at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the bottom of the email has a statement that starts, “Hopefully, you’ve heard of NIEHS, but if not …”

Brand recognition seems to be a problem for NIEHS, the only one of the National Institutes of Health located outside of the DC metropolitan area.

Environmental toxicologist Joel Meyer from Duke spoke at RTP 180 about how the DNA in cells gets disrupted, contributing to the development of disease. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

And, yes, NIEHS is located in North Carolina, in Research Triangle Park. It was actually the first large tenant in RTP, back in the ’60s.

NIEHS leader Linda Birnbaum is determined to raise the organization’s profile in this, its 50th anniversary year. She also wants to get her researchers out into the local community more.

“If you’re going to study the environment, you absolutely have to work with the community,” Birnbaum said at an event held last week.

Birnbaum had come to a monthly meeting of RTP 180, a social, networking and educational TED-like event held at The Frontier, a co-working and event space in RTP. She brought with her several NIEHS grantees to talk about their work.

“Several of our centers are at local universities,” Birnbaum said. Both UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke host Superfund Centers. N.C. State University hosts an environmental health center, and there are multiple grantees at universities throughout North Carolina.

“We spend almost $250 million a year in the local environment,” she said. “We’re a pretty well-kept secret.”

Getting the word out

But if the grantees Birnbaum had with her last week were any indication, NIEHS won’t be a secret for long.

N.C. State researcher Heather Patisaul had the crowd laughing along as she presented on what she’s learned from prairie voles, little mouse-like critters that are actually quite social.

[pullquote_right]There’s active recruitment in North Carolina for several studies, including the Body Weight and Puberty Study and a study on Bisphenol A exposure, both being conducted on the NIEHS campus in RTP.[/pullquote_right] Patisaul explained how the voles mate for life and are more interested in hanging out with their mates than by themselves or with “an alluring stranger.” That’s more similar to humans than other rodents.

With help from NIEHS, she’s been able to look at the hormones in the voles similar to those in humans and has studied how those hormones get disrupted.

“We can study how a chemical like bisphenol A, or BPA, interacts with the brain and the nervous system to change behavior,” she said.

NIEHS grantee Heather Patisaul talked about how hormone response in prairie voles is similar to that in humans. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Another presenter, Dave Peden from UNC, grabbed attention with his description of exactly how air pollution damages the lungs.

Peden, who studies asthma, told the crowd that someone with asthma is more likely to have a delayed reaction to air pollution; attacks come a day or so after exposure. That realization is what led researchers to believe that inflammation is important.

“It takes awhile to make pus in your lungs. There’s an image for you.” he said as people audibly groaned. “If you inhale a particle, it takes awhile for your lungs to get annoyed with it.”

Peden said research shows, for example, that if people are worried about pollution, then exercising in the morning may be better than exercising in the afternoon if you exercise outside, because there’s less pollution in the morning.

“There are things that you do to protect yourself,” he said.

More to come

Event emcee Will Hardison said the 300-some people at last week’s event constituted one of the biggest crowds RTP 180 has attracted, so big that the event ran out of food and beer.

A standing-room crowd came to last week’s RTP 180 event to hear NIEHS grantees discuss their work, drink beer and eat burritos. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Afterwards, Peden said he thinks it’s important for scientists to get out and talk about their research in ways that are engaging to the public.

If that’s the case, Birnbaum may be calling  him again. The Institute is planning a series of events throughout 2016, from a screening of WALL-E at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh and Women’s Health Awareness Day events in Durham, both in April, to lectures and symposia scattered throughout the year.

“We’ll be having events all year,” Birnbaum said. “Some of the best ways for me to meet the community is to hold an open forum.”

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