Lydia Zablotska’s efforts win epidemiology a seat at the table at the Radiation Research Society

This week, when the Radiation Research Society (RRS) holds its annual meeting virtually, it will for the first time formally include epidemiology as a discipline among its ranks, with Lydia Zablotska, MD, PhD, as the field's first elected Councilor.


Zablotska was among those working behind the scenes for years to have the Society amend its bylaws to add epidemiology to its list of four existing disciplines: biology, chemistry, medicine, and physics. When it finally did at its meeting last year, it opened a corresponding new seat among its officers on the RRS Executive Council.


“I thought, well, might as well run after all the efforts,” Zablotska said.


The omission of epidemiology in a professional group devoted to radiation research is an ironic twist in the history of science, because radiation researchers – and research into why they were so prone to certain cancers at the dawn of radiation era – helped launch epidemiology as a discipline.


“Cohort studies were developed by people who conducted radiation research,” Zablotska explained. The pioneering epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll, while more famous for his post-World War II work connecting cigarette smoking to lung cancer, also showed the connection between radiation exposure and leukemia.


Zablotska’s own path to epidemiology came through an interest in radiation. She began medical school shortly after the Chernobyl disaster in heavily affected Belarus. On her first day, instructors predicted that when the new students began their clinical rotations, they would see the first patients suffering from the effects of Chernobyl radiation exposure. And indeed, five years later, in her oncology-hematology and pediatrics rotations, Zablotska would see the first children presenting with thyroid cancer and leukemia.


“I was so struck – how did they know?” she recounts. She went on to join a Columbia University National Cancer Institute-funded study on the long-term effects of radiation at Chernobyl as a graduate student in epidemiology. She eventually became the leader of the study and brought it to UCSF.


Zablotska is less interested in why epidemiology “fell out” of the scope of RRS when it was formed than she is in “correcting the history.”


“Radiation is the best-known carcinogen. There’s no other carcinogen that we are so sure is causing harm,” she said. “But we need to live with radiation, so we need to study it.”


Including epidemiologists in RRS will improve our understanding of the risks of radiation exposure among nuclear workers and miners, doctors and medical technicians and their patients, and the general public, Zablotska says.


“The issue is we need to cross-pollinate between disciplines. These days, you can’t be a Leonardo da Vinci who does everything. You need a research team staffed with people from biology, medicine, chemistry, physics and epidemiology to do good research. It has practical implications if you don’t see your colleagues at the table – you don’t think about them and their area of research.”


For instance, studies to identify genetic markers that signal greater predisposition to the harmful effects of radiation lag behind similar studies in other fields, according to Zablotska.


More than anything, Zablotska hopes that giving radiation epidemiology a seat at the table will drive more interest in the field for emerging scholars.


As students move toward more specialization, they consider training programs, funding opportunities and professional groups and meetings. Without those, the field of radiation epidemiology is dwindling. There are no academic programs in radiation epidemiology in the United States. Zablotska has consistently been unable to find U.S.-based students to fill funded research positions.


“After this generation, there’s not a single faculty member that we know of coming up in radiation research. For us, that seems really, really important,” Zablotska said. “In order to train young professionals, we have to support them.”


Zablotska plans to use her role on the RRS Council to help develop programs to expand training opportunities for the next generation of radiation epidemiologists, biostatisticians, and dosimetrists.