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NIH to recognize 12 champions of environmental health research

October 07, 2016

Twelve individuals will receive the first-ever Champion of Environmental Health Research Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), for their significant contributions to the field.

The awards will be presented Nov. 1 at the NIEHS campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, to celebrate its 50th anniversary. NIEHS is part of the National Institutes of Health, and is the only institute headquartered outside the Washington, D.C., area. NIEHS funds approximately 1,000 grants to researchers across the country each year, and has also played a key role in the economic development of North Carolina.

"2016 marks 50 years since NIH began a dedicated research program to discover links between environment and health," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "It's a complex research field that needs the attention of top scientists, and I congratulate these awardees for their outstanding contributions."

The champion awards recognize outstanding researchers, leaders, and communicators that have contributed to the NIEHS mission to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives.

"NIEHS and the research it has supported during the last five decades has made significant improvements to public health," said NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. "From our pioneering studies showing the dangers of lead and secondhand smoke, to our more recent efforts to prevent breast cancer and other diseases, NIEHS has helped identify and reduce the environmental factors that contribute to these diseases. We couldn't have accomplished these things, without the help of many talented, dedicated people."

2016 Champion of Environmental Health Research awardees

Charles E. Blumberg

Blumberg is an architect and interior designer of research facilities with the Division of Environmental Protection at NIH. He is a principal player in the sustainable buildings movement, using science-based solutions to make buildings more supportive of human health. His influence can be seen in nearly all NIH facilities, including NIEHS. Blumberg represents NIH on the U.S. Green Building Council, championing the application of human health research and principles of sustainability in the development of building standards.

Jeffrey Gordon, M.D.

Gordon is an internationally recognized expert on the microbiome, whose pioneering studies have dramatically altered our understanding of the microbial origins of health and disease. His research for the NIH Human Microbiome Project has broken new ground in our understanding of how gut microbial communities affect intestinal growth and function, and relates directly to the core mission of NIEHS -- to understand how the environment influences human health, especially during the first years of life. Gordon is the Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor, and director of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D.

Kunkel is a world leader in the study of DNA replication fidelity and how environmental disruptions of the process can produce cytotoxicity, mutagenesis, and adverse health effects. As an NIEHS distinguished investigator leading the Genome Integrity and Structural Biology Laboratory, Kunkel's exceptional work during his 34-year career at the institute has merged biochemistry, structural biology, genetics, and genomics to help us better understand how mutations are avoided or generated. His work has broken new ground in our knowledge of DNA repair processes that operate prior to DNA replication.

Philip Landrigan M.D.

Landrigan is a pediatrician and epidemiologist known for his many decades of work protecting children against environmental threats to health, in particular, reducing the level of children's exposure to lead, pesticides, and other environmental contaminants. His landmark lead poisoning studies in the 1970s played a key role in phasing out lead from gasoline and the ban on lead paint. Landrigan is dean for global health, professor of environmental medicine and public health, and professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, as well as president of the Collegium Ramazzini.

John Peterson (Pete) Myers, Ph.D.

Myers is a biologist, and founder, CEO, publisher, and chief scientist of the nonprofit foundation Environmental Health Sciences. Through its twin online publications, Environmental Health News and The Daily Climate, Environmental Health Sciences has successfully mainstreamed science reporting. In 1996, Myers co-authored "Our Stolen Future," which explores the threat of endocrine disruption to fetal development. He is an adjunct professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. He has won several awards, including the 2016 Laureate Award for Outstanding Public Service from the Endocrine Society.

Jeanne Rizzo, R.N.

As president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund since 2001, Rizzo has been a tireless advocate for improved public awareness of the increasingly complex science linking environmental exposure and breast cancer, helping citizens make potentially lifesaving changes in their daily routines. She has helped remove harmful chemicals from consumer products, and oversees a program that trains community activists on breast cancer science and sends them into the community to learn about people's health needs. As co-chair of the federal Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee, she helped produce the landmark 2013 report, Breast Cancer and the Environment: Prioritizing Prevention.

Kurt Straif, M.D., Ph.D.

Straif is a world-renowned epidemiologist and public health leader whose research has advanced our understanding of the occupational and environmental risk factors for cancer. He has worked for the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, for 15 years. For the last six, he has led the IARC cancer monographs section, which alerts national health agencies to sources of potential exposure to carcinogens. He is also the scientific director of the IARC Summer School on Cancer Epidemiology. Straif was a leading force in the classification of outdoor air pollution as a carcinogen.

Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D.

Wilcox is a leader in studies of reproductive epidemiology and head researcher in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. His work has fundamentally changed our understanding of fertility and pregnancy. He has studied the critical time period from conception to birth, and how specific environmental factors might affect reproduction and development. His current work focuses on cerebral palsy and its possible prenatal causes. He has received numerous awards for his contributions, including the 2016 NIH Director's Award. He was also a finalist for the 2016 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medal, which highlights excellence in the federal workforce.

Champion of Environmental Health Research Awards will also be presented to four distinguished scientists who have served as leaders of the institute.

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum has been director of NIEHS since 2009. She is an internationally recognized toxicologist, whose research has enriched our understanding of endocrine disruption and cancer, and shed new light on the environmental health risks posed by substances such as dioxins, flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls, and bisphenol A. Birnbaum has authored hundreds of papers, and received numerous awards, including the 2016 North Carolina Award, the state's highest civilian honor for her science contributions. She is the first woman, and first toxicologist, to head NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP).

Kenneth Olden, Ph.D.

During his 14 years, from 1991 to 2005, leading NIEHS and NTP, Olden repeatedly broke new ground. As the first African-American to direct an NIH institute, he worked tirelessly to make the striking health disparities between racial and ethnic groups a research priority. He was a powerful advocate for collaboration between community groups and research institutions to identify and address environmental health concerns. After leaving NIEHS, he became the founding dean of a new School of Public Health at Hunter College in New York City. From there, Olden served as director of the National Center for Environmental Assessment at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for five years.

David Schwartz, M.D.

Schwartz became the fourth director of NIEHS in 2005. He is world-renowned for his contribution to the understanding of the roles played by genetic determinants and environmental exposures in the onset of lung diseases, such as asthma and pulmonary fibrosis. At NIEHS, Schwartz led the institute into new arenas, such as epigenetics and exposure phenotyping through the Exposure Biology Program. He planned a new clinical research unit for NIEHS, and supported advanced technologies for sensor devices and bioinformatics. Currently, Schwartz is a professor of medicine and immunology and holds the Robert W. Schrier Chair of Medicine at the University of Colorado, Aurora.

Samuel Wilson, M.D.

Wilson is a leader in structural biology techniques and head researcher in the NIEHS Genomic Integrity and Structural Biology Laboratory. He also served as deputy director and twice as acting director of NIEHS and NTP. Wilson has distinguished himself as a pioneer in the use of powerful structural biology techniques to understand DNA replication. Knowledge gained through his work has fundamentally advanced our understanding of base excision repair, a key cellular defense mechanism against the effects of metabolism, inflammation, and environmental exposure. Wilson has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein Mentoring Award, for his mentoring and leadership skills.

In addition to the award presentations, the NIEHS 50th anniversary program, which is open to the public and being webcast from 10 a.m. to noon Nov. 1, will include several distinguished speakers, including Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday, Public Radio International; James Hunt, former governor of North Carolina; Carol Folt, Ph.D., chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and U.S. Representative David Price.
NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of NIH. For more information on environmental health topics, visit Subscribe to one or more of the NIEHS news lists ( to stay current on NIEHS news, press releases, grant opportunities, training, events, and publications.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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