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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

October 2021

Innovation prize awarded to former NIEHS Director Kenneth Olden

The Health and Environmental Sciences Institute recognized him for his lifetime of work advancing health equity.

The Health and Environmental Sciences Institute (HESI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization committed to improving human and environmental health, has awarded its inaugural Innovation Prize to former NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Kenneth Olden, Ph.D. The prize recognizes exceptional scientists who have helped improve health equity and reduce health disparities. Olden will receive a cash award of $80,000.

“This award serves as a capstone to my tenure as director of NIEHS,” said Olden. “I am humbled by the honor and thank HESI for recognizing the institute’s unwavering commitment to equity and justice in healthcare research and practice.”

Kenneth Olden speaks at a podium “I am confident NIEHS employees and grantees are appreciative that our efforts to embed equity and social justice into the various programs of the institute did not go unnoticed,” said Olden. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

HESI Innovation Prize

For more than three decades, HESI has developed programs that bring together scientists and collaborators from varying disciplines to promote health equity around the world. Like Olden has done his entire career, future Innovation Prize winners will have shaped their unique approaches to improving health equity based on one or more of the HESI core operations shown below.

  • Safe and effective medicines.
  • Food safety and security.
  • Chemical and consumer product safety.
  • Environmental quality and sustainability.

Distinguished career

At the beginning of his career, Olden was a staff fellow and research biologist at the National Cancer Institute before joining Howard University as associate director of research. He then became director of the Howard University Cancer Center and professor and chairman of the Department of Oncology at Howard University Medical School. Later, he was named director of NIEHS and NTP and served in this capacity from 1991 to 2005.

After that, Olden, became NIEHS Director Emeritus and focused on research again. He joined the institute’s Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis and led the Metastasis Group, which studied the characteristics of tumor cells. However, another institution soon needed his assistance. In 2008, Olden left NIEHS to help found the School of Public Health at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. The school was the first to have an emphasis on urban health.

After leading the development of the school’s curriculum, recruiting faculty, and guiding the college through its accreditation process, Olden accepted a new challenge. During the summer of 2012, he joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and directed its National Center for Environmental Assessment and the Human Health Risk Assessment Program. He left the EPA in 2016 to focus solely on health equity research.

Spotlighting health inequities

Throughout his illustrious career, Olden found that social determinants of health — such as poverty, food insecurity, lack of housing, and racial discrimination — influenced environmental health outcomes (see sidebar). His research suggested that these and other factors translated to higher rates of disease and lower life expectancy for communities of color. His goal is to produce further data that helps to bolster policy changes related to health disparities.

“Dr. Olden has worked hard and passionately to address health inequities throughout his career,” said NIEHS and NTP Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D. “Therefore, for him to receive the first-ever HESI Innovation Prize is a recognition of his enormous contributions and impact in health equity research across the environmental health sciences community.”

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