Good genes help, but they can’t completely protect people from the chemicals, industrial byproducts, infectious agents, foods, medicines, lifestyle choices, and social and economic factors that shape their lives — for better or worse.

With a message that people can’t change their genes, but they can change their environment, Linda S. Birnbaum, a toxicologist and the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, will discuss the interplay of environmental hazards and health at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Her talk is the opening lecture of the seventh Distinguished Public Lecture Series, sponsored by the institute and the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program.

Pesticides, chemicals, pollution, and other human-made and natural hazards in the environment contribute to cancers, birth defects, infertility, heart disease, diabetes, brain diseases and disorders (including Alzheimer’s disease and autism), and dozens of other non-communicable diseases.

Birnbaum began her career studying dioxins — toxic chemical compounds that accumulate in the food chain and are associated with an array of health concerns, including developmental and reproductive problems and cancer.

“Toxicology is really the science of safety, and I started studying certain chemicals that were very effective at changing the metabolism of other chemicals,” Birnbaum said. “I began to study not only dioxin, but many related chemicals, trying to understand how they acted, how toxic were they, and whether every chemical that looked like dioxin was as bad as dioxin.”

Birnbaum became a leader in a strategy to understand the totality of exposures to dioxin, which has been used in federal programs to determine whether people are at risk and in efforts to clean up hazardous waste sites.

As director of the National Toxicology Program, which is headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, she leads efforts to understand how environmental exposures across the lifespan – from before conception to old age – interact with genetic factors. The aim is to enhance ways to maintain healthy environments.

“Dr. Birnbaum will discuss 21st-century environmental challenges to public health, including developmental origins of health and disease, indoor air quality and hazardous exposures during critical developmental windows, as well as endocrine disruptors,” said Michael Friedlander, the executive director of Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “She will consider the need for novel mechanistic, systems, and epidemiologic approaches to ensure that the highest quality science informs individual, community, and policy decision-making.”

Efforts to identify and modify hazards associated with environmental factors, ranging from toxic chemicals to overexposure to sunlight, are critical in efforts to prevent diseases, according to Birnbaum.

Her talk, “Our Environment, Our Health, and Our Future” will kick off the first Distinguished Public Lecture of the 2016-17 series at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. A brief reception will precede the 5:30 p.m. talk. More information may be found on the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute website.

The Distinguished Public Lecture Series brings the world’s leading medical researchers and scientific thought leaders to Roanoke as part of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s mission to engage the community in the excitement and promise of scientific research. The free public lectures are co-sponsored by the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program and are open to members of the general public as well as to Virginia Tech and Carilion faculty, students, and staff.

“We’re absolutely delighted to be able to share the insights of such highly sought after experts in such a range of fascinating topics.” Friedlander said. “We're also very proud to introduce these speakers to the blossoming partnership that Virginia Tech and the Carilion Clinic have forged for bringing the future of medical science for better health to the Roanoke region, the commonwealth, and the nation.”

Upcoming speakers include:

  • George Koob, the director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who will discuss the “Neurocircuitry of Addiction: An Alcohol Perspective” on Jan. 19, 2017
  • Peter J. Moehler, the director of the Dorothy M.  Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute and chair of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, who will discuss “Defining New Pathways for Human Arrhythmia” on Jan. 26, 2017
  • E. Albert Reece, the vice president of medical affairs at the University of Maryland, who will discuss “Unraveling the Multi-generational Syndrome of Diabetic Embryopathy: From Cell Signaling to Clinical Care” on March 9, 2017
  • Greg J. Duncan, a distinguished professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, who will discuss “Early Childhood Education: What Works and What Doesn’t” on March 16, 2017
  • David J. Skorton, the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian, will lecture on May 18, 2017. As secretary, Skorton oversees 19 museums and galleries, 20 libraries, the National Zoo, and numerous research centers, including the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
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