Environmental Factor – June 2022: Precision Health, Focus on Environmental Justice from Community Forums

Two NIEHS-funded research centers, known as the “Core Centers,” sponsored community forums in May, giving scientists and health advocates the opportunity to present their work and discuss important topics and emerging with NIEHS leaders.

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., led a discussion on precision environmental health during his visit to the University of Cincinnati (UC) Environmental Genetics Center (CEG) on May 10. NIEHS Deputy Director Trevor Archer, Ph.D., gave a keynote presentation on addressing racism in science as part of a virtual event hosted May 18 by the Mount Sinai Center on Lifelong Health and Environment (HEALED).

Precision Environmental Hygiene

“Precision environmental health is a framework for understanding how environmental exposures across the lifespan can interact with an individual’s unique genetic, epigenetic, and biological makeup and influence health outcomes later in life,” said noted Woychik.

“At NIEHS, we generate and fund scientific knowledge that promotes individual and public health,” Woychik said at the UC Community Forum. “Thousands of lives are saved and illnesses averted through standards created based on NIEHS research findings.” (Photo courtesy of Lisa Ventre/University of Cincinnati)

“To help prevent disease in Cincinnati and beyond, researchers must strive to better understand gene-environment interactions and the corresponding biological changes that may result,” he said.

During his visit, three early-career scientists from UC shared their research on genes and the environment.

“I really enjoyed meeting the investigators behind the work we support at the University of Cincinnati,” Woychik said. “They will help shape the future of environmental health science.”

The NIEHS funded $15.5 million in research studies at Ohio universities last year.

Inspired by community members

Woychik also toured Cincinnati and listened to community leaders discuss their efforts to reduce air pollution and address concerns about a lack of clean water.

Climate resilience and citizen science efforts were among the topics discussed by the leaders of Ohio River Valley. Other presentations featured representatives from Urban Health Lane and the Center to Close the Health Gap.

Alan Edwards, left, and Jaeydah Edward, right Alan Edwards, left, and Jaeydah Edward, right, of Groundwork Ohio River Valley, demonstrate a pilot project for a community climate resilience plan that was funded by CEG as Woychik, right, listens. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Ventre/University of Cincinnati)

“I was really inspired by the presentations from community members,” Woychik said. “Visiting neighborhoods and speaking with residents reinforces the important role that community engagement plays in helping us achieve our mission at NIEHS.”

Woychik’s hosts were Andrew Filak, Jr., MDdean of the faculty of medicine, George Leikauf, Ph.D.holder and professor of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Public Health (DEPHS) and director of the CEG Susan Pinney, Ph.D.

representatives from Urban Health Pathway and the Center for Closing the Health Gap From left to right: Dave Schmitt JD, Mill Creek Alliance; Michelle Burbage, Ph.D., DEPHS; Pinney; Nick Newman, DO, UC Department of Pediatrics; Woychik; O’Fallon; Leikauf; Jagjit Yadav, Ph.D., DEPHS; Burns; and Chuck Doarn, DEPHS. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Ventre/University of Cincinnati)

Inclusiveness in the scientific workforce

Anti-racism and environmental justice were among the topics discussed at the second community forum. The online event was organized by Luz Guel and Maida Galvez, MD, of HEALS, which is a NIEHS-funded central center at the Institute for Exposomic Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which is located in New York.

Archer was one of three guest speakers. He shared information about NIEHS and National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiatives to address racial disparities in biomedical research and advance environmental justice, including the following.

  • The UNISIONS Initiative was created to identify and treat structural racism through the NIH.
  • Research to Action (R2A) projects include at least one environmental health science researcher and one community organization to bring public health action plans to communities. Currently, 14 R2A teams address community environmental health issues such as tribal exposures, climate change and community resilience, and more.
Screenshot of Archer's presentation

Archer serves as co-chair of the “I” committee of the UNITE Initiative, which challenges all NIH institutes and centers to implement the Racial and Ethnic Equity Plan (REEP) process. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)

“Greater inclusion in the scientific workforce will foster innovation at NIH and in the biomedical research community,” Archer said. “And at NIEHS, increased community engagement will help ensure that our work informs the health decisions of people who are often disproportionately affected by environmental exposures.”

Racism as an environmental public health problem

Archer also shared information about recent workshops held by the NIEHS Disparities in Environmental Health and Environmental Justice (EHD-EJ) faculty. Members helped organize two major events, including one addressing racism as an environmental public health issue and another focusing on disparities in women’s reproductive health.

Various arms stacked on top of each other Find out why Archer says diversifying research models and scientific manpower will lead to innovation by reading this environmental factor story. (Photo courtesy of Vectors Bang/Shutterstock.com)

“This faculty is really an attempt within NIEHS to draw attention to the science behind health disparities and provide actionable steps for researchers and affected communities,” he said.

Archer also announced that the next NIEHS-supported Environmental Justice Boot Camp will be held August 15-16.

Addressing environmental and climate injustices and exploring racism as a social determinant of health were among the topics discussed by Almetta Pitts and Sacoby Wilson, Ph.D., who were also guest speakers at the May 18 event. Wilson provided historical insight into scientific racism and environmental justice.

John Schelp, NIEHS Special Assistant for Community Engagement and Outreach, and Liam O’Fallon, Health Specialist in the Institute’s Population Health Branch, helped organize these forums and other NIEHS community forums, and they contributed to this article.

(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-writer in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at NIEHS.)

Harry L. Blanchard