Student Research Opportunities in Environmental Health

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 new methods for tackling this problem, involving a combination of mathematical modeling and laboratory investigation. We are also comparing and contrasting the methods that toxicologists and epidemiologists use for exploring interaction of exposures. A background in toxicology, biostatistics or epidemiology is helpful. For more information (including publications), please see our website.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Tom Webster, Jennifer Schlezinger
  • Contact: Tom Webster

Analysis of Chemical & Non-Chemical Stressors in an Urban Environmental Justice Population

This is a community-based participatory research project in partnership with the Chelsea Collaborative, a nonprofit organization in the City of Chelsea. 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. We use established qualitative and quantitative research techniques to collect data from 350 residents via interviews asking about chemical exposures of concern, social and economic concerns, behavioral risk factors for disease, self-reported health outcomes, and perceptions of environment (including noise and odors) and quality of life. A student working on this study will have the opportunity to contribute to quantitative or qualitative analysis of the data, participate in all team meetings, and contribute to the final report presenting findings of the study to community members and agencies.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Madeleine Scammell, David Ozonoff
  • Contact: Madeleine Scammell

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 will have 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.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Madeleine Scammell, David Ozonoff
  • Contact: Madeleine Scammell

Basic Laboratory-Based Research in Environmental Health

There are two major research foci that are currently 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 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 will spend time observing the techniques used in each of the three laboratories, will have the opportunity participate in data analysis, and will attend lab meetings.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Jennifer Schlezinger, David Sherr
  • Contact: Jennifer Schlezinger

Effects-Based Cumulative Risk Assessment in a Low-Income Urban Community Near a Superfund Site

The objective of this study is to develop and apply novel statistical and analytical methods for cumulative risk assessment, focusing on a low-income community (New Bedford, MA) living near a Superfund site. We are investigating two specific health outcomes—ADHD and blood pressure—and are considering how both chemical and non-chemical stressors can influence these outcomes. Ongoing research efforts include development of GIS-based exposure models for multiple stressors of interests, use of NHANES data to build new dose-response models for multiple stressors considered simultaneously, and development and implementation of a community survey to determine patterns of health risk behaviors in New Bedford. Students working on this project could be involved in applying exposure models and determining high-risk populations, developing statistical models using BRFSS and other data, or development of outreach materials in collaboration with community partners. Students would attend regular group meetings at BUSPH and with partners at the Channing Laboratory and Northstar Learning Centers in New Bedford.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Jon Levy, Patricia Fabian, Junenette Peters
  • Contact: Jon Levy

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 development of strategies for change in 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 are evaluated.

  • Eligibility: Master’s student
  • Primary faculty: Wendy Heiger-Bernays
  • Contact: Wendy Heiger-Bernays

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. Several projects are currently underway. One study will compare 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 will compare 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 multi-site consortium study is also in the planning stages. Another study which is just beginning 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 Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses (RAC) website.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Kimberly Sullivan, Roberta White
  • Contact: Kimberly Sullivan

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. Students would attend regular group meetings at SPH and join calls and meetings with collaborators at UNC, MIT, and elsewhere.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Jon Levy, Junenette Peters
  • Contact: Jon Levy

Health Impacts of Wind Turbines & Health

The need for renewable energy in recent years saw a rapid placement of large wind turbines on land and off-shore. In the US, the permitting process occurs directly in each city or town and in Massachusetts this often falls to the local Boards of Health. Recent attention is paid to concerns about health impacts of the sound and vibration produced by the turbines when they are sited too close to dwellings. In 2011, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts convened a panel to evaluate the health impacts of wind turbines in addition to holding three public hearings on the findings. There are several unanswered questions regarding health and wind turbines, including the generalizability of research findings to all turbines. In this study, students will catalogue the properties of the installed turbines, the interactions of each local community with its Board of Health and a systematic evaluation of the information and data gathered. The objective is to provide the basis for a study using objective measures for both environmental noise and health.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Wendy Heiger-Bernays
  • Contact: Wendy Heiger-Bernays

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. Students participate in literature, community engagement and field-based work.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Wendy Heiger-Bernays
  • Contact: Wendy Heiger-Bernays

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

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 have 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 as well as potential health effects such as endocrine disruption. In addition, we are examining exposure and health effects of alternative flame retardants as well as the perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) used as stain-resistant coatings. 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).

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Tom Webster, Mike McClean, Wendy Heiger-Bernays, Sharon Sagiv
  • Contact: Tom Webster

Modeling the Impact of Building-Wide Energy Retrofits on Environmental Exposures & Occupant Health

We previously designed and successfully implemented a simulation model of the effect of residential environmental exposures on pediatric asthma in low-income multi-family housing, using a hypothetical building template and parameterizing the model using previously collected data from Boston public housing developments. As a next step toward the development of a broadly-applicable policy model, we are building, calibrating, and validating a simulation model working within a specific multifamily development with an ongoing energy retrofit and extensive concurrent data collection. Our study will provide a tool that would allow developers, researchers, or HUD to prospectively evaluate health benefits or disbenefits for tenants of multifamily housing from building interventions targeted towards energy savings, allergen reduction, or combustion by-product reduction. Students working on this project could be involved in constructing and evaluating realistic buildings within indoor air quality simulation models, analyzing field data related to environmental exposures or health status, or conducting literature reviews to update model parameters. Students would attend planning meetings or calls with collaborators at SPH, Harvard SPH, Boston Medical Center, and CDC.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Jon Levy, Patricia Fabian
  • Contact: Jon Levy

Nitrates and Chemical Contamination of Drinking Water Wells

High levels of nitrate 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. Students will work with recently collected data from a Town in Massachusetts where well water has been contaminated with nitrates, VOCs and solvents from a landfill to analyze the correlation of nitrates and other chemical contaminants. The student will also review the literature on previous studies characterizing the co-occurrence of nitrates and chemicals in well water. This research is relevant globally.

Spatial Epidemiology

The Spatial Epidemiology Group at SPH 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).

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Tom Webster, Verónica Vieira
  • Contact: Tom Webster

Social & Environmental Burden of Hoarding on Urban Public Housing

Hoarding is a serious psychiatric problem that poses a profound public health risk as it is often accompanied by health and functioning problems, including potential life-threatening effects on the individual and the neighboring community. Hoarding is characterized by considerable difficulty discarding ordinary items and excessive acquiring that contribute to large quantities of clutter; these problems prevent typical uses of living spaces and may pose additional community environmental health issues for those living in close quarters to hoardings, as in multi-unit housing developments (pest infestations, mold, and ventilation). The Boston Housing Authority has just received a one-year pilot grant to study the prevalence of hoarding in four public housing developments. The study is a partnership among faculty at the BU School of Public Health, the BU School of Social Work, and the School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. The student will work with the project coordinator collecting data on the prevalence of hoarding behavior among residents, characterize hoarding behavior at the individual and community level via interviews and focus groups, and develop and test a model infrastructure that includes training and intervention with a case manager.

  • Eligibility: Master’s or doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Madeleine Scammell
  • Contact: Madeleine Scammell

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 first phase of the parent study included the recruitment of 705 cases and 815 controls in the greater Boston metropolitan area (1999–2003); the second phase was completed last year, resulting in a final sample size of 1291 cases and 1362 controls. 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 will have the opportunity to analyze data from a large case-control study to investigate predictors of disease and/or survival.

  • Eligibility: Doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Mike McClean, Karl Kelsey (Brown University)
  • Contact: Mike McClean

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. In the coming year, we will likely begin three new projects in the region. The first will be an investigation of metals exposure and kidney function among adolescents in multiple regions of Nicaragua. The second will be an assessment of genetic characteristics of former sugarcane workers diagnosed with CKD. The third will be 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 will have the opportunity to plan and conduct the field investigations as well as attend regular project meetings.

  • Eligibility: Doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Mike McClean, Madeleine Scammell, Dan Brooks (Epidemiology Department)
  • Contact: Mike McClean

Combining Community Input, Models, and Population Data to Inform Community Outreach Activities in New Bedford

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 NB community partners (NorthStar and the Department of Health) 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 to work with community organizations, build regression models, and write a manuscript.

Environmental Radiation Exposure from the Seabrook Nuclear Reactor

The C-10 Research and Education Foundation (C-10) was established in 1991 to address the health and safety issues related to the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant. There is an independent citizen’s monitoring program in place to measure airborne radiation levels within the ten mile radius of the Seabrook Station reactor. These computerized monitoring sites continuously record radiation levels and are located in private homes, schools and businesses in MA and NH. Students working on this project will have the opportunity to work with a group of concerned citizens and help them to design a study and prepare a proposal that could be submitted for foundation funding. The study could focus on a) further analysis of the emissions and monitoring data or b) a pilot case-control study of leukemia or multiple myeloma in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

  • Eligibility: Doctoral student (prerequisite: EH 757)
  • Primary faculty: Mike McClean, Dick Clapp
  • Contact: Mike McClean

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 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.

Metal Bioavailability & Blood Metal Concentrations in Mexican Children Living Near a Smelter Plant Using the IEUBK Lead Model

The largest nonferrous metallurgical complex in Latin America is located in Torreon, Mexico, an industrial city with a population of 608,836. The smelter opened in 1902, and operated with little or no environmental controls for a century, resulting in elevated levels of multiple metals in the soil, particularly lead (Pb) and cadmium (Cd). The EPA Integrated Exposure Uptake Biokinetic (IEUBK) model is typically used to estimate blood lead concentrations from environmental lead measurements. One assumption in the IEUBK model is a constant bioavailability fraction for all site samples, however field data has shown that bioavailability can vary over 80% in a single site. Students working on this project can use the IEBUK to explore how bioavailability can impact blood lead levels in children, compare data from multiple laboratory methods to estimate bioavailability, build models predicting bioavailability in soil samples as a function of GIS-derived and soil composition variables, or test other biokinetic models to study the impact of bioavailable Cd and Zn.

  • Eligibility: Doctoral student
  • Primary faculty: Patricia Fabian
  • Contact: Patricia Fabian