In January, toxicologist Linda S. Birnbaum became director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, home to the National Toxicology Program, in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Birnbaum recently spoke with Science News writer Rachel Ehrenberg.
What areas would you like to see the institute zoom in on?
One of the things I've been really working on is to increase our interaction with various federal partners as well as trying to involve the larger community in our actions and our activities. Scientists need to do a better job of helping the general public understand what we do, why it is important and what it means to them. Many scientists take the attitude that what they do is too complex, and in fact, my response to that is, "Then you don't really know what you are doing." So I think that we need to meet with our constituents, understand what their concerns are, listen to them, learn from them and then help them to understand what our findings mean. The dialog has to be a two-way street.
In terms of the scientific things, we need to focus on complex diseases--diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autism and ADHD. There appears to be a genetic component to a lot of these but there is a gene-environment interaction as well. What are the populations that are most susceptible? Is it the very young? Very elderly? We are past the one-gene, one-disease kind of paradigm. We need to think about testing smarter, testing differently, taking a more systems approach.
I am also very interested in the issue of differential susceptibility and in long-term effects of early exposures. I think we're understanding more and more and more that things that happen to you in utero or as a young child or even during puberty can ... come back to haunt you 40 and 50 years later, and I think we need to be spending more attention on that.
I'm interested in what some people call low-dose exposures ... exposures that result in levels in our bodies that have some relevance to the real world. There has been a lot of criticism of a lot animal studies that they are done at very high doses. And in many cases, if you actually look at the internal dose in the animal--the blood level or the tissue concentration--what you find is it is not so very high. If it is exceedingly high there may be very little relevance to what's going on, but in many cases it is not that high compared to at least some people in our population. …