A $1 million gift from Michael S. Falk and Annie Falk has allowed the Nicholas School to establish a research laboratory in environmental exposomics, an emerging scientific field that assesses the cumulative effects of environmental contaminants on human health.

Duke’s Board of Trustees approved the facility be named the Michael and Annie Falk Foundation Environmental Exposomics Laboratory. It was officially dedicated on April 11.

Exposomics aims to measure a person’s cumulative exposures to environmental contaminants over the course of his life and identify how these combined exposures influence his risk of developing cancer and other diseases.

“Genetics, on its own, has been found to account for only about 10 percent of all diseases. The remaining 90 percent appear to be linked to environmental causes or complex interactions of environmental and genetic factors,” said Heather Stapleton, associate professor of environmental chemistry and co-principal investigator of the lab.

Exposomics combines the power of big data and the precision of molecular epidemiology to give scientists a promising new way to investigate these complex interactions. Zeroing in on the specific mixtures can help determine which chemicals are responsible for increasing a person’s risk of specific diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease or neurodevelopmental disorders.

The Falks’ gift will provide funding to hire highly specialized staff members to perform research and data analyses in support of research by scientists at the Nicholas School, the Duke Cancer Initiative, the Pratt School of Engineering and other schools and labs across campus.

The gift also will fund access to additional computational resources through Duke Research Computing, support
an environmental exposomics symposium to be hosted at Duke, and fund the development of a new web interface for disseminating and translating the lab’s research findings to scientists and the public.

“This gift by Michael and Annie Falk will help Duke remain at the forefront of efforts to identify environmental causes of disease and develop more effective ways to prevent or reduce exposures,” said Toddi Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School. “It positions us very competitively for additional research funding and for expanded collaborations with research units from across Duke, Duke Health and other universities and institutions.”

Michael and Annie Falk are members of the Nicholas School’s Board of Visitors and also have served the university as members of the Duke Parents Committee. Their daughters, Mikaela and Gianna, are both Duke graduates.