Skip to Content
Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

Ethel Gilbert Retires from NCI, Receives Gold Medal for Radiation Protection

photo of ethel gilbert

Ethel Gilbert

In 2016, Ethel S. Gilbert, Ph.D., staff scientist in the Radiation Epidemiology Branch (REB), retired after nearly 20 years at NCI. She is internationally recognized for her outstanding contributions to statistical methodology for radiation epidemiology studies. For more than 35 years, Dr. Gilbert evaluated late effects of protracted radiation exposure among nuclear workers, including U.S. cohorts, multi-country studies, and more recently plutonium refining workers in the Mayak nuclear facility in the Russian Federation. Dr. Gilbert also served for more than 15 years as lead statistician for studies of second cancers after radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Dr. Gilbert also played a pivotal role as lead statistician for studies of cancer risk among Chinese benzene workers who were employed in multiple industries in 12 cities, drawing upon her extensive experience with nuclear worker studies.

Also in 2016, Dr. Gilbert was chosen to receive the Gold Medal for Radiation Protection by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This prestigious award is given once every four years to a scientist who has made a highly valuable contribution to international radiation protection work during the preceding 10-year period. Dr. Gilbert will receive the prize at a meeting in South Africa in May. The laudatory prize citation summarizes her prominent career:

“Few investigators have so notably advanced the scientific understanding of the carcinogenic effects of radiation exposures at low doses and contributed to radiation protection as much as Dr. Ethel S. Gilbert during her career spanning some 50 years. Dr. Gilbert is an expert on exposure to inhaled alpha emitters (plutonium and radon), as well as on the statistical effects of uncertainty of doses, errors in radiation dose estimates, and their impact on the relationship of cancer risk to radiation dose. She is highly regarded for her work on leukemia risk in nuclear workers, thyroid cancer risk from I-131, and lung cancer related to plutonium exposure. Much of this work has been accomplished or expanded in the past ten years.”

“Recently, Dr. Gilbert increasingly turned her attention to cancer survivor research, evaluating late effects of radiotherapy among survivors of Hodgkin lymphoma, cervical, testicular, and other solid cancers, thus moving the second cancer field forward and increasing our understanding of the separate and joint effects of radio- and chemotherapy on second cancer risks. Her results have contributed importantly to modern radiotherapeutic approaches to minimize late effects.”

“It is exciting to see Ethel receive special recognition for her scientific contributions over the years,” said Amy Berrington de González, D.Phil., Chief of REB. “This is a fitting capstone to her stellar career.”

Over her career, Dr. Gilbert has received a number of other prestigious awards, including the NIH Merit Award (2003) and the NCI Director’s Award (2015), which recognized her seminal efforts to advance understanding of low-dose radiation carcinogenesis and to develop state-of-the-art analytical methods to estimate treatment-related second cancer risks.

“Ethel has been a pivotal member of the second cancers research team,” said DCEG senior investigator Lindsay Morton, Ph.D. “Her statistical expertise in complex studies of treatment-related risks is unparalleled, and she is a dedicated collaborator – always available to answer questions or talk through challenges, conscientious in her analyses and writing, and generous in her teaching of junior scientists.”

Dr. Gilbert is a fellow of the American Statistical Association, an honorary member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, a former member of the National Academy of Sciences BEIR VII Committee on Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation, and also a former member of the study group for the 15-country nuclear worker study.

Dr. Gilbert received a B.A. in mathematics from Oberlin College and an M.P.H. and Ph. D. in biostatistics from the University of Michigan. Prior to joining NCI, she worked as a senior staff scientist at Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and spent a year at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima, Japan. Dr. Gilbert joined NCI in 1996.