The Harvard Chan-National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Center for Environmental Health is a coordinated set of resources and facilities supporting environmental health research and training activities throughout the Boston area. Located at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, the Center promotes integration between basic and applied environmental science, and fosters collaborations that cross departmental and institutional boundaries.
Our research combines population and patient based studies with mechanistic laboratory investigation to illuminate the pathways by which environmental exposures cause health effects. We prioritize questions that are directly relevant to real human populations, thus pivoting a two-way conversation between scientific knowledge production and community needs and values.
Rapid technological developments and the increasingly wired and connected world have expanded our ability to measure the external environment, human biology, and their interaction to generate a rich and nuanced picture of environmental exposures of people and place. The future of environmental health will be one of complex integration across a varied and rich exposure space. With this in mind, the theme of the Harvard Chan-NIEHS Center is a re-envisioning of the exposure environment and the integrated effects of chemical and non-chemical stressors of people and place to better understand the impact of exposure on human health.
Goals and Directions
The overall strategy of the Harvard Chan-NIEHS Center is centered around four goals: (1) to facilitate access to laboratory and information services for Center members; (2) to provide enabling and pilot project funding and career development to Center investigators; (3) to facilitate interchange, integration, innovation, and collaboration; and (4) to engage with community members external to the Center to facilitate bidirectional information exchange. Together, these efforts will increase our Center’s capacity to inform research, community action, public policy, and clinical practice. In achieving these goals, the Center will focus on three specific directions: (1) integrating the broader environment of people and place into studies of toxicant health effects; (2) applying ‘omics approaches, including microbiomics, to interrogate the integrated environmental exposure and biological effect space; and (3) using biostatistical approaches to integrate data across mixtures of environmental exposures and multidimensional outcomes. While presented separately for clarity, these specific directions are, in practice, integrated components of our holistic approach to the environmental issues we will address across the re-envisioned environmental exposure space of people and place. These new directions will build on our existing research core expertise, mechanistic biological and ‘omics research, and innovation in exposure assessment and biostatistics.
Marc Weisskopf, Center Director
Douglas Dockery, Center Deputy Director
Monica J. Russell, Center’s Administrative Manager
Research Core Programs
Susan Korrick, Metals Research Program Lead
Tamarra James-Todd, Organic Chemicals Research Program Lead
Jaime Hart, Particles Research Core Leader
Integrated Health Sciences Facility Core (IHFSC)
Bernardo Lemos, Integrated Health Sciences Facility Core (IHFSC) Leader
Bernardo Lemos, Biological Analyses Service Leader
David Christiani, Environmental Genomics Service Leader
Stephanie Shore, Particles Service Leader
Environmental Statistics and Bioinformatics Core
Brent Coull, Environmental Statistics and Bioinformatics Core Leader
Community Engagement Core
Gary Adamkiewicz, Community Engagement Core Leader
Ann Backus, Outreach Leader
Career Development Core
Diane Gold, Career Development Lead/Coordinator
Frank Speizer, Career Development
Advancing environmental health sciences (NIEHS strategic objective #1). Critical to our Center are efforts to understand the basic biological mechanisms and pathways by which environmental exposures affect health. Our various ‘omics efforts are geared towards improving understanding of exposures to, and biological effects of, mixtures of exposures. Coupling genomic approaches with our efforts to capture the broader environmental context will help to identify susceptible populations. A principle new focus is on the microbiome and ways that it can be a target, mediator, or modifier of complex environmental exposures.
Promoting translation of data to knowledge and action (NIEHS strategic objective #2). Our re- envisioning of the broader environmental landscape includes incorporation of contextual issues relevant to environmental disparities and justice, and how they impact health and modify the effects of other exposures. We are re-envisioning how we engage with the community and how that engagement can help us as researchers to both gain a better understanding of the holistic lived environmental context, and to better direct and translate our research back to the community to drive action to improve health.
Enhancing environmental health science through stewardship and support (NIEHS strategic objective #3). At its core, our Center promotes multidisciplinary team science and provides flexible access to state-of-the-art facilities and resources so that Center members can stay at the cutting edge of environmental health research. A central tenet of the Center is that it will train and develop future leaders in all areas of environmental health science, both nationally and internationally. With this aim in mind, we also strive to infuse our Center with new and diverse leadership and partnerships, both inside and outside traditional environmental health spheres, so that we can continually push our intellectual boundaries and stimulate innovative thinking.
Founded in 1962, the Harvard Chan-NIEHS Center for Environmental Health is the oldest of 20 core research centers across the country supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). As the recipient of only the second grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health, it has the distinction of having NIH grant number ES-000002.
Over the past five-plus decades, the Center has supported research in the Department of Environmental Health’s focus areas of air pollution, metals, and organic chemicals. The Center helped support, for example, the landmark Six Cities Study, led by former Center Director Douglas Dockery, which found a strong link between air pollution and mortality risk and helped pave the way for strengthened U.S. regulations on fine particulate matter in the air.
Center investigators, led among others by Howard Hu in the past and now Marc Weisskopf, have been pioneers in the non-invasive measurement of lead in bone and other tissues using X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) and the use of that approach to examine the connection between lead exposure and outcomes like cardiovascular disease and cognitive function. Other Center researchers have conducted studies that have looked at mercury in the environment. Elsie Sunderland, for example, found that hydroelectric plants in Canada that require the flooding of land can trigger increased levels of methylmercury, a neurotoxin, in the water, which then works its way into the food chain.
Center funding has helped develop the careers of young investigators by providing pilot grants for innovative research as well as assistance with writing grants and building professional networks. In the past decade, the Center has given out 100 pilot project grants, and those have led to 33 new NIEHS grants for individual researchers and more than 150 publications. In the last 5 years, 14 Center-supported researchers received career development awards from the National Institutes of Health, and 27 were appointed as faculty members at other institutions.
Other examples of Center-supported work include:
- Lindsay Jaacks’s work on the association between exposures to organic pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine pesticides, and diabetes in developing countries;
- Tamarra James-Todd’s research on how hormone-disrupting chemicals might affect mothers’ heart and metabolic health during pregnancy and contribute to disease later in life;
- Maitreyi Mazumdar’s research on whether prenatal exposure to arsenic may increase risk of infant neural tube defects;
- Wanda Phipatanakul’s examination of the effectiveness of air cleaning in schools in reducing the prevalence and severity of asthma;
- Catherine Racowsky’s collaboration with Russ Hauser, chair of the Department of Environmental Health and director of its organic chemicals research core, to study the impact of bisphenol A (BPA) on human egg quality.