Student Research Opportunities in Environmental Health

There are many opportunities for students to get involved with research. Contact faculty directly to inquire about joining current projects or opportunities to begin your own research project under faculty guidance. 

 

Examples of Previous Research Projects

 

Analysis of Chemical Mixtures

Toxicology studies are typically performed on a single chemical at a time, but in the real world we are exposed to complex mixtures. How should environmental health scientists and risk assessors deal with this problem? We have been developing and applying new methods for examining the effects of mixtures in both toxicology and environmental epidemiology. There are several projects: 1) examination of potential interactions of ligands of the PPAR gamma receptor; 2) application of new methods for examining multiple exposures in environmental epidemiology (including methods adapted from spatial epidemiology); 3) development of “benchmark datasets” for use by NIEHS in comparing statistical methods for mixtures analysis; 4) effect-directed analysis of mixtures; 5) non-targeted (“exposomic”) approaches to exposure assessment; 6) characterization of complex patterns of exposure to multiple compounds; 7) mathematical modeling of ligand-receptor systems.  A background in toxicology, biostatistics or epidemiology is helpful. For more information (including publications), please see our website.

Analyzing Qualitative Data on Perceptions of Environmental Health

Adjacent to Boston, Chelsea is Massachusetts’ second-most densely populated municipality, with every census tract designated an environmental justice population by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. This community-based participatory research project is a partnership with the Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit organization in the City of Chelsea. Data from 350 interviews of Chelsea residents in census blocks abutting an urban designated port area includes responses to open-ended questions about ways in which residents think the environment may affect human health. Students had the opportunity to learn to code and analyze qualitative data using social science research methods and to report the findings of these data to residents and stakeholders in the city of Chelsea.

Basic Laboratory-Based Research in Environmental Health

There are two major research foci that are being pursued in the Basic Research Laboratories in the Department of Environmental Health:

  • Studies of environmental chemical-induced bone marrow toxicity, including impacts on bone biology, metabolic biology and on lymphopoiesis (Dr. Schlezinger).
  • Studies of the role of the aryl hydrocarbon receptor in breast cancer development and metastasis (Sherr). Of particular interest are those chemicals that activate the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (i.e., chemicals in cigarette smoke) and that activate the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (i.e. contaminants in plastics).

Students doing rotations spent time observing the techniques used in each of the two laboratories, had the opportunity to participate in data analysis, and attended lab meetings.

Chemicals in Consumer Products

Related to our research on flame retardants and stain-resistant coatings are ongoing projects characterizing these and other compounds in consumer products. In the past, we have worked on flame retardants in couches, baby products, and recreational equipment. One project is examining office furniture using both conventional and novel approaches. With collaborators, we are also using non-targeted approaches.

Chronic Kidney Disease in Central American Workers

Elevated rates of chronic kidney disease have been found in the northwest region of Nicaragua where sugarcane production is the major industry, as well as among workers in other industries and other regions of Central America. However, the cause is unknown and the role of environmental and/or occupational exposure remains unclear. There are 3 projects. The first is an investigation of metals exposure and kidney function among adolescents in multiple regions of Nicaragua. The second is an assessment of genetic characteristics of former sugarcane workers diagnosed with CKD. The third is a large-scale longitudinal investigation of occupational exposures and kidney function among workers in multiple industries in multiple Central American countries. Students working on this project had the opportunity to plan and conduct the field investigations as well as attend regular project meetings.

Consumer Products, Nitrates, and Chemical Contamination of Private Drinking Water Wells

High levels of nitrates in well water often result from overuse of chemical fertilizers or improper disposal of human and animal waste. Sources of nitrate that can enter wells include fertilizers, septic systems, industrial and agricultural waste and leaching landfills. Nitrates are often tested in well water, along with coliform, as they are relatively easy to measure and analyze, and may indicate the presence of other chemical and biological hazards. Recent pilot study analysis of septic leachate and water from coincident wells demonstrates the presence of 1, 4 dioxane. This chemical is found in consumer products, including shampoos, soaps and bubble baths and has been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies and adversely affect the liver and kidneys as well. Students worked with recently collected data from a town in Massachusetts where well water had been contaminated with nitrates, and 1, 4 dioxane. The student also reviewed the literature on previous studies characterizing the co-occurrence of nitrates and chemicals in well water, the specific consumer products in which 1,4 dioxane is formed and (if funded), design and implement the data collection of 1,4 dioxane in wells and septic systems. This research is relevant globally.

Deriving Drinking Water Guidelines for Chemicals of Emerging Concern: Approaches for Evaluating Chemicals with Minimal Toxicity Data

In many communities, ongoing surveillance of groundwater and surface water sources identifies contaminants that lack drinking water regulatory criteria or health-based guidelines. Contaminants may include pharmaceuticals, personal care or household product ingredients, and unregulated industrial chemicals, many with possible endocrine disruptive or developmental toxicity properties. This project required investigation and use of computational toxicology data and existing risk-based guidelines to develop an approach that is defensible and nimble. The student focused on the use of OECD and USEPA computational toolboxes.

Green Chemistry Initiative

Green chemistry applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, and use. Several initiatives world-wide have focused on the development of strategies to change the way we do laboratory research, develop products, and manufacture products. The US Environmental Protection Agency refers to Green Chemistry as “sustainable chemistry…the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.” This research project supports one of the sub-aims of the BU Superfund Research Program housed in the School of Public Health. In this research, implementation of the useful elements of Green Chemistry initiatives (beyond recycling, turning off the lights and basic solvent substitutions) for SPH and BU were evaluated.

Gulf War Illness Research

Faculty within the EH Department have been studying Gulf War veterans with unexplained illness and symptoms since shortly after their return from the war in 1991. Most of this research has focused on relationships between chemical (pesticides, nerve gas) and pharmaceutical (anti-nerve gas pills) exposures experienced by the veterans during the war and health outcomes, especially those related to the central nervous system (i.e. cognition, brain imaging etc.). Several projects are currently underway. One study is comparing longitudinal health symptom reports in order to more fully understand health symptom trajectories over time with the ultimate goal of devising a new case definition of Gulf War Illness. Another project is comparing all neuropsychological and health symptom report studies to date in a meta-analysis to identify consistent cognitive and health symptom patterns in ill Gulf War veterans. A large multi-site consortium study has also recently started that will assess animal models of Gulf War Illness and clinical studies with Gulf War veterans. Consortium clinical studies involve cognitive testing, neuroimaging and analysis of blood, cerebrospinal fluid and saliva markers. Another funded study is a treatment trial of intranasal insulin to treat the cognitive problems experienced by Gulf War veterans. For more information on Gulf War Illness, see our Gulf War Illness Consortium Site.

Health Impacts of Aviation-Related Noise and Air Pollution

Aircraft and other sources near airports can contribute to air pollution and noise exposures for local communities, regionally, and globally. Characterizing the exposure and health risk implications from aviation sources can be challenging given complex source characteristics and spatial patterns, but is important in developing long-term intervention strategies. This long-running project involves a number of related sub-studies, with a current focus on epidemiological investigations of cardiovascular effects of noise and health risk assessment models to predict the public health burden of aviation emissions in the United States and globally. Students working on this project could work on efforts including data management and statistical analyses for epidemiological studies, or development of models and databases for health risk projection, and could contribute to policy analysis manuscripts. Students attended regular group meetings at SPH and join calls and meetings with collaborators at UNC, MIT, and elsewhere.

Home and Community Gardens

Since the 1970s, a broad-based community gardening movement has arisen in the US, producing urban agricultural sites in hundreds of cities. A growing body of research has demonstrated the significant contribution of these gardens to the livability of cities by providing nutritious and affordable food; supporting psychological and physiological health; promoting social cohesion, crime prevention, recreation and youth development. Recent attention to the locally grown food and slow food movements have resulted in the need for more access to locally grown food in urban home and community gardens and urban farms. In this collaboration between Boston Natural Areas Network and Boston University School of Public Health, we have worked to characterize the nature and extent of Boston community garden soil contamination by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), lead and arsenic. More recent work focuses on the relationship between municipal compost and suitability of use for gardens and urban farms and rooftop gardens. We provide science-based recommendations for remediation of contamination and for improvement in the quality of compost. Our current work is focused on determining the uptake of metals in locally-grown produce, characterizing composts and as always, our desire is to develop sustainable recommendations that are science-based, but readily implemented by communities. The latest work is to develop metrics for “benefits” with the purpose of determining how “clean” soil needs to be. Students participate in literature, community engagement and field-based work.

Indoor Exposure & Health Effects of PBDEs, PFCs, and Related Compounds in Adults and Children

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of compounds commonly used as fire retardants in furniture containing polyurethane foam and consumer products such as televisions. Human body burdens and environmental concentrations of PBDEs increased for several decades and vary geographically, with the highest general population values reported in the USA. We are investigating major routes of human exposure to PBDEs and their replacement flame retardants. We are also examining potential health effects such as endocrine disruption. In addition, we are examining exposure and health effects of perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs, also called PFCs) used as stain-resistant coatings. A major new project involves exposure to children and examination of potential health effects.  Students can get involved in ongoing research projects, participating in study design, field work and data analysis. A background in exposure assessment and/or epidemiology is helpful. For more information (including publications).

Informing Education and Health Intervention Programs in New Bedford by Combining Statistical Models, General Population Data and Community Input

This project is nested within a community-based research study in New Bedford whose primary goal is to develop cumulative risk assessment models focused on ADHD-like behavior and cardiovascular outcomes. For this we previously developed a synthetic population database which can be used to identify geographic and demographic patterns of multiple risk factors not available in public databases. This project will involve working with our New Bedford community partner (NorthStar) and city agencies to identify factors from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) which may be useful in informing decisions about their education or health intervention programs; developing regression models from public databases (BRFSS) and applying them to the synthetic population; and disseminating results with the community partners. The project provides opportunities of working with community organizations in New Bedford, statistical modeling in SAS, and writing a manuscript. (PI: Levy, co-investigators: Fabian, Peters)

Modeling the Air Quality and Public Health Benefits of Increased Residential Insulation in the United States

In this project, we are developing models to quantify the energy savings associated with increased residential insulation in the United States, along with the corresponding environmental and public health benefits. Reduced energy consumption can lead to less electricity generation, reducing power plant emissions, and can also decrease direct residential fuel combustion. Power plants and residential combustion can influence regional air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, and each source also has upstream implications related to fuel extraction, waste disposal, and so forth. Students working on this project could support residential energy modeling efforts, synthesize and analyze atmospheric modeling outputs being developed by collaborators at UNC, conduct basic statistical analyses, and contribute to report and manuscript preparation.

Modeling the Impact of Smoking on Airborne Nicotine and Urinary Cotinine Levels using Building Simulation

The CASTLE project (A Comprehensive Asthma Simulation TooL of Energy retrofits) is a simulation study whose objective is to model the impact of building-wide energy retrofits on indoor environmental exposures and pediatric asthma outcomes in a low-income housing development in Boston. One aspect of CASTLE involves constructing building templates in an indoor air modeling software package called CONTAM. This project uses these building templates to estimate exposure to secondhand smoke in multi-family buildings, as well as estimate the impact that building interventions (e.g. weatherization, compartmentalization) can have on secondhand smoke exposure. The project provides opportunities to learn about indoor air quality modeling, become familiar with building simulation software, statistical modeling in SAS, and writing a manuscript.

Nitrates and Associated Health Impacts

High levels of nitrates in well water often result from overuse of chemical fertilizers or improper disposal of human and animal waste. Sources of nitrate that can enter wells include fertilizers, septic systems, industrial and agricultural waste and leaching landfills. Nitrates are often tested in well water, along with coliform, as they are relatively easy to measure and analyze. The health effects associated with nitrates are largely not considered when the nitrate drinking water standards are set. Recent evidence suggests that nitrate acts through a similar toxicological mechanism as perchlorate (thyroid effects). The student will review and summarize the epidemiology and toxicology of nitrate exposures and adverse outcomes. Depending on the level of expertise, the student may derive a benchmark dose for nitrate, an associated drinking water guideline for comparison with the existing drinking water standard for nitrates.  This research is relevant globally.

Spatial Epidemiology

The Spatial Epidemiology Group has several interests:

  • Disease mapping and clusters;
  • Time-space analysis;
  • Ecologic bias;
  • The use of combinations of individual- and group-level data (multi-level studies);
  • The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in exposure assessment.

Depending on their background and interests, students can get involved in various aspects of data analysis and mapping. A background in epidemiology and statistics or GIS is helpful. For information (including publications).

DOCTORAL-ONLY RESEARCH ROTATIONS

Case-Control Study of Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) is the tenth most common cancer in the US and the sixth most common cancer worldwide. In our large-scale investigation of HNSCC, we focus on exploring the role of risk factors such as tobacco, alcohol, human papillomavirus, secondhand tobacco smoke, diet, marijuana, and the genetic factors that may modify such relationships. The study population includes 1291 cases and 1362 controls recruited from the greater Boston metropolitan area. Incident cases of HNSCC were identified through seven teaching hospitals located in Boston, Massachusetts. Population-based controls were drawn from the same greater Boston study area as cases. Students working on this project had the opportunity to analyze data from a large case-control study to investigate predictors of disease and/or survival.

Land Use Regression Modeling for Historic Air Pollution Exposure

This projects aims to develop a land use regression model combining historic road and satellite data in order to estimate historic air pollution exposure in a cohort of children born in Massachusetts and Rhode Island between 1960 and 1990. The study is nested within a case-control study of PCE-exposure and birth defects that is part of BU’s Superfund Research Program (PI: Aschengrau). The project provides opportunities for exposure modeling, integrating remote sensing data and GIS road metrics in a land use regression model, and writing a manuscript.