Is this sushi going to harm my baby? Should I have walked farther behind that person who was smoking on my walk to work this morning? Is prenatal yoga really necessary? These are common questions from expectant mothers as they navigate pregnancy in a variety of environments. While many soon to be mothers don’t have the answers to these questions, one man has made it his mission in life to understand how specific environmental factors may affect reproduction and development.
Dr. Allen Wilcox, Senior Investigator in Epidemiology at the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Environment Health Sciences sat down with Christopher Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER to talk about his work in fertility, pregnancy and reproduction.
Wilcox is a public service veteran and has spent nearly 40 years working on human reproduction research. He is currently a finalist in the Career Achievement category for the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals, or the SAMMIES— an award that recognizes the awesome things federal employees are working on. Wilcox claims he stumbled into his career simply because he needed a job, but he’s been a lead innovator in his field ever since.
“Epidemiology is a way of understanding the causes of diseases without focusing on laboratories and instead focusing on what happens in the population,” Wilcox explained. This notion allows epidemiologists to look at how a disease distributes among vulnerable people in the population, revealing underlying causes for all kinds of diseases.
Wilcox’s work focuses on finding links between environmental factors and birth defects. He noted, “part of my job is to be on the lookout for things that might happen during pregnancy that are related to the environment.” However, environmental factors are not just pollutants. They can include things relating to nutrition, personal lifestyle habits, or anything that may be used to prevent health problems.
Currently, Wilcox is working on a groundbreaking study on cerebral palsy. He is collaborating with researchers in Denmark and Norway to look at a hundred thousand women in each country from their first pregnancy examination through the child’s first few years. They collect information during the pregnancy and identify all the children who developed cerebral palsy. Once the children are identified, Wilcox and his team can go back and see if there are commonalities between mothers of children with cerebral palsy that differentiate them from the other mothers. From those observations, the researchers can begin making biological inferences about what the causes of cerebral palsy may be.
While Wilcox is driving innovation as a researcher, the choice to go into the public sector wasn’t always clear for him. He explained that he was balancing being a clinician with being a researcher with having a life and he realized he couldn’t do it all. So as a young physician he took a look at what he wanted out of his career and decided he did not want to be evaluated by the number of hours he worked or how much money he made. “I wanted to find a job where I could be immersed in what I was doing and be totally engrossed in whatever the venture was. The NIH was the place to do that because they provided me the opportunity and resources to ask the questions I was interested in,” Wilcox explained.
The government’s role in health related research is crucial. Wilcox emphasized, “the government is able to provide a protected place for creative people to do excellent work.” NIH researchers are focused solely on new discoveries and through this a lot of important research has come out of the NIH that probably wouldn’t have been able to be accomplished in other sectors.
Looking forward to the next generation of researchers, Wilcox said he and his team are leading by example. “When we have the opportunity to show people what the setting is and the value in the work going on at NIH, we can hire really smart and really good people,” Wilcox explained. This is crucial for developing the next generation of capable researchers.
Still can’t get enough of your awesome government employees? Check out the other SAMMIE finalists and be sure to hug your favorite govie next time you see them so they know how appreciated they are!