A new, cross-campus innovation is going to improve the health and livelihood of New Mexico communities.
The inspiring program is called none other than NM-INSPIRES. It all began within the National Institutes of Health (NIH,) and its Environmental Health Science Division.
The NIEHS through its Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers program has provided infrastructure support to universities across the country for more than 50 years. Currently, there are 22 centers including NM-INSPIRES.
“I just think this center is very unique. The aim of it is to guide and support environmental health research, provide leadership in environmental health, foster collaborations, innovations, support new ideas, and provide a career development for new leaders who are interested in environmental health sciences.” NM-INSPIRES Environmental Health Sciences Core Center Director and UNM College of Pharmacy Professor Sarah Blossom said.
NM-INSPIRES, (the New Mexico Integrative Science Program Incorporating Research in Environmental Sciences) is housed within the College of Pharmacy, but includes a strong collaboration with UNM’s main campus.
Its mission and vision is to support NIH funded investigators conducting basic and translational studies, develop future investigators, and address the needs and health concerns of Southwest communities relating to environmental exposures.
“NM-INSPIRES stands in a unique position to not only help through their environment health research, but also work with the people of New Mexico to make positive impacts on the environment health issues that affect them most.” College of Pharmacy Senior Program Manager Theresa Champion said.
With $5.1 million in support from the NIH, 60 team members from NM-INSPIRES will foster collaboration among four focus groups, or “cores,” that will look into environmental cancer, inhalation and cardiopulmonary toxicology, immunology, inflammation and infectious disease, and Communication and Implementation Sciences.
“We just want to support NIH funded researchers conducting both basic and clinical translational studies,” Blossom said.
“We can address the needs and the health concerns of the communities in the Southwest and New Mexico.” – Sarah Blossom
NM-INSPIRES also provides services thanks to these cores and funding. One of those is the Pilot Project Program, which provides funding for high risk and high payoff opportunities. These are for trying out new environmental science ideas that might not otherwise be funded traditionally.
With four years on the clock, and dozens of people involved, it’s clear NM-INSPIRES is a big undertaking.
“It took us almost three years from the time we started working on the grant to the time we were able to start it.” C&J Professor and Community Engagement Core leader Tamar Ginossar said. “We have all of these really concerning problems with different metals, including uranium, h PFAS, and ozone, for example.”
Like its fellow Environmental Health Centers, UNM’s is focused on a uniquely New Mexico trouble. From the 1950’s to the 1990’s there was extensive uranium extraction and mining activities, which spanned across the state. Tribal nations, unfortunately, got the brunt of the negative impact.
“Our theme is really bridging the gap between studying or supporting research that studies legacy contaminants such as the legacy uranium mines, primarily on the Navajo Nation, which has been a main focus in the past,” Blossom said.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has vowed to clean up affected properties, especially those on the Navajo Nation, that effort is slow moving.
NM-INSPIRES will extend work done by other centers, which focus mostly on legacy mines in rural communities, and include additional communities and health concerns. One of NM-INSPIRES’ communities, for one, wants to tackle high levels of lead in children.
“I'm excited because we are expanding. There are other environmental issues as well. I'm just excited because it's fun for me to be able to provide support to people,” Blossom said.
NM-INSPIRES is centered on long-term collaborations with communities, and on supporting research that is responsive to communities’ needs and concerns through multi-directional communication.
“It's not the old model where a scientist comes and gives a presentation, and the community needs to listen,” Ginossar said.
Team members will be speaking one-on-one with the very people living in the communities chosen to study. There will be interviews, in-depth reporting, and connecting with organizations located in the community at hand.
“Our goal is to have multi-directional communication with communities. We go to our community partners, and we say to them: ‘this is what we can do, how can we support you and do research together that meets your needs?’ We try to see who in our center can work with them and then how we can collaborate,” Ginossar said.
It’s especially helpful that some NM-INSPIRES team members are well versed already in Indigenous communities.
“Some of the people we work with have experience of working with Indigenous communities for decades,” Ginossar said. “That way we didn't have to create this new collaboration because it's already there.”
Research coordinator Taliya Torres is new to the team and brings some of those diverse experiences.
“I have a lot of experience working on health issues with diverse communities,” Torres said. “I'm just excited to work with the communities, especially in rural parts of New Mexico, Indigenous and Latin communities, and that kind of just get a bigger understanding of what their needs are and how we can address those needs and the things that we can do to help them.”
Another important component of NM-INSPIRES is the method of presenting results. If the complex data were presented as such, New Mexicans would be left in the dark trying to decipher the meaning behind complex scientific concepts.
“Think about science as its own language, right? How do you translate that into something meaningful for public health? They want to know how this is going to impact me and my health and my community,” Blossom said.
That’s why the translation team is so critical. It breaks down what each technical term means from a ‘how does this affect me?’ standpoint.
“We do want to inform communities about research. A lot of time you can alleviate concerns,” Ginossar said.
Eventually, NM-INSPIRES hopes to inspire a new wave of policy and procedures when it comes to environmental livelihood in New Mexico.
“We don't want it to end. We want to successfully compete for an extension and then we'll be extended hopefully for five more years. We want to continue and work to build the bridge between scientists and communities,” Ginossar said. “That's what's exciting to me, to be able to really support these types of community-researchers’ collaborations.”
For now, this team is content just making this research a reality. They hope they can continue to investigate these issues and grow into one of the centers that has been around for decades, especially being the only one in the Southwest.
“Our goal is to hopefully not have an ending on it, but to continue to enhance environmental research in New Mexico,” Blossom said. “Hopefully our work is meaningful and has meaning in the real world.”