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Coming of age

Scientists develop careers through interdisciplinary project

Eleven years ago, Josh Hamilton was a junior faculty member working to get his lab established at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS). One day, he got a call from the late Karen Wetterhahn, Professor of Chemistry and a senior scientist at Dartmouth. She wanted him to attend a meeting with some fellow faculty who were all pursuing research on toxic metals in the environment. Wetterhahn had learned that the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had funding available for studying toxic metals, and she wanted to see if her colleagues were interested in applying. Hamilton didn't realize it at the time, but that meeting marked a turning point for him and his research.

Members of Dartmouth's Center for Environmental Health Sciences
Members of Dartmouth's Center for Environmental Health Sciences pictured in front of Occum Pond, l-r: Angeline Andrew, Maragaret Karagas, Joshua Hamilton, Celia Chen, Nancy Serrell and Carol Folt. (photo by Joe Mehling '69)

"I knew everyone in the room socially," said Hamilton, now a Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at DMS and the Director of Dartmouth's Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS). "When we all started talking, we realized how much we had in common professionally. It was an early effort in interdisciplinary study, and we were lucky enough to get funded."

That momentous meeting included several other young investigators, who are now senior scientists and administrators, including Carol Folt, now Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Biological Sciences and the Associate Director of CEHS; Margaret Karagas, now a Professor of Community and Family Medicine at DMS and the Chair of the Epidemiology Program at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center; and Dean Wilcox, now a Professor of Chemistry.

According to Hamilton, the initial 1995 grant from the Superfund Basic Research Program (named for the Environmental Protection Agency's program to clean up hazardous waste sites) launched several careers and several subsequent projects at Dartmouth. The grant itself has been renewed twice, most recently in May, extending the project another three years with $9 million in support, bringing to $36 million the total funding awarded for this project since 1995. The new grant will also support the research of Bruce Stanton, Professor of Physiology at DMS, who is a new principal investigator in the group.

The original grant created the Toxic Metals Research Program, and then Hamilton and Folt established CEHS to coordinate a variety of research initiatives centered around the impact of chemicals on human health and the environment. The group is particularly interested in arsenic, mercury and lead, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and prevention have designated as the top three environmental chemicals of concern for human health, as well as cadmium, chromium, nickel and other potentially toxic metals.

Hamilton explained that their interdisciplinary approach has spawned a new generation of scientists who think differently about pursuing research.

"I think I'm a better scientist now," said Hamilton. "I've worked with epidemiologists, chemists, ecologists, molecular biologists, geneticists and geochemists. I have a better understanding of different fields, and that informs my research tremendously. We all have learned from each other. Some of the more rewarding work is what we do in the public interest; we help everyday citizens understand their environment better. It is clear that this kind of interdisciplinary, translational research will be the hallmark of science in the coming years."

Celia Chen '78 and Ph.D. '94, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, and Angeline Andrew, Assistant Professor of Community and Family Medicine at DMS, have come of age, professionally, within Dartmouth's Toxic Metals Research Program and the CEHS. Because of its 10-year (and counting) history, scientists have enjoyed extended relationships with each other and have seen their research mature over long periods of time, a luxury not always afforded in the sciences.

Andrew, for example, first joined this interdisciplinary group as a Ph.D. candidate. After completing her degree in pharmacology/toxicology, she then continued her training as a molecular epidemiology postdoctoral fellow with support from CEHS before starting her own independent, collaborative research program. She is now one of the principal investigators on the recently renewed Superfund grant.

Hamilton said that younger researchers like Chen and Andrew will always tackle research questions from an interdisciplinary point of view, because that's what they've always known, and that's healthy. With the old, traditional way, scientists only learned about their specific field. The new, interdisciplinary approach, according to Hamilton, is becoming much more accepted and much more the routine.

Incorporating public outreach into research initiatives is also becoming more main stream, said Nancy Serrell, the Associate Director for Outreach at CEHS, who has also been working with the group since its inception. CEHS has helped countless people concerned about toxic metals in their communities through a variety of programs. Currently, outreach is focused on arsenic in drinking water, mercury in fish and shellfish and lead poisoning prevention, targeting underserved minority populations in Manchester, N.H. Most outreach projects involve collaborations with state agencies, city and town government officials and non-profit community groups throughout New England.

To learn more about CEHS and the Toxic Metals Research Program, visit www.dartmouth.edu/~cehs.

By SUSAN KNAPP

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08