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Linda Birnbaum, director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

Toxicologist takes on role of NIEHS director.

After 16 months without a director, the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, has a new head. Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, who has spent much of her career at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took the helm at the institute this month. See CV

Birnbaum started off as a biologist at the University of Rochester in New York, and was soon attracted to the burgeoning fields of molecular biology and molecular genetics. Her PhD at the University of Illinois in Urbana saw her map the ribosomal RNA genes of Escherichia coli. After a postdoc at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a stint at Kirkland College in Clinton, New York, Birnbaum took a post at the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory in Utica, New York, where she studied ageing. Here began her career-defining work in toxicology.

In studying how altered metabolism could affect ageing, Birnbaum modulated metabolism in rats using dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls. She looked at how these chemicals break down in the human body and for the next 10 years explored the molecular effects of dioxins, analysing the relative toxicity of related chemicals, and designing long-term bioassays to assess cancer risk. “If anybody had told me that 30 years later I'd still be working with that family of chemicals, I wouldn't have believed them,” she says.

Taking over as head of the EPA's Environmental Toxicology Division in 1989, Birnbaum expanded its ranks to an all-time high of 90 full-time employees and dozens of students and postdocs. Despite budget cuts, she found ways to continue toxicology studies by partnering with other federal agencies or academia. She spearheaded some of the first work documenting the mechanism of action of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants.

Kenneth Ramos, president of the Society of Toxicology, hopes that Birnbaum will help the NIEHS, and the maturing field of environmental health, better define itself. “With an internationally recognized toxicologist as its leader, the institute can now focus its efforts and have an impact on disease causes,” he says. “Linda has the expertise and conviction to inspire and grow the institute on many levels.”

Birnbaum is encouraged by the incoming administration of Barack Obama's stated commitment to science, health and the environment. “I plan to create a holistic approach that can deal with the biggies, from complex mixtures of toxic chemicals to climate change,” she says.

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Joyce DeLeo, chair, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Dartmouth Medical School, Hanover, New Hampshire

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Gewin, V. Linda Birnbaum, director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Nature 457, 502 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7228-502a

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