The doctoral program in environmental health provides students with specialized training and research experience in environmental and occupational epidemiology, exposure assessment, spatial epidemiology/GIS, risk assessment, and toxicology. The training program provides knowledge, experience, and training in core disciplines to allow for critical thinking in research design, interpretation, and translation. Our department has a long tradition of conducting rigorous, innovative, and socially engaged research. In fact, our program is one of a small number of academic units nationally that specializes in investigating exposure-related health outcomes in community settings.
Our program has been designed to ensure that students receive the training, research experience, resources, and support necessary to be successful. Accordingly, the average time to completion is 4.6 years and our graduates successfully obtain positions as postdoctoral research fellows and faculty members at academic research institutions, as senior scientists at environmental consulting companies, and as senior scientists at regulatory health agencies.
The training program provides knowledge, experience, and training in core disciplines to allow for critical thinking in research design, interpretation, and translation. Upon completing the PhD in environmental health, students are able to:
- Communicate the basic characteristics of major chemical, physical and biological hazards and the properties that govern the hazards’ behavior in the environment;
- Explain the scientific characteristics (e.g. route of exposure, dose response, mode of action) of major chemical, physical, and biological hazards that result in human health risk;
- Explain and analyze genetic, physiologic, and social factors that affect the susceptibility to adverse health outcomes following exposure to environmental hazards;
- Critically evaluate and interpret the hypothesis, experimental design, methods and results presented in a paper from a technical journal article in an environmental health discipline (toxicology, epidemiology, exposure assessment, environmental policy);
- Identify data gaps and formulate testable hypotheses about critical questions in environmental health (epidemiology, toxicology, exposure assessment, environmental policy);
- Design and implement data collection strategies and rigorous evaluations to test hypotheses using novel or current techniques;
- Analyze and interpret environmental health data;
- Identify appropriate intervention strategies for specific environmental health problems;
- Prepare scientific manuscripts for publication in peer reviewed journals in the field of environmental health; and
- Communicate scientific results at national and/or international conferences in the field of environmental health.
Graduates of our doctoral program continue the department’s tradition of rigorous, innovative, and socially engaged research as post-doctoral research fellows and faculty members at academic research institutions, as senior scientists at regulatory health agencies, and as senior scientists at environmental consulting companies.
Program of Study
Upon entering the program, a pre-dissertation advisor is assigned to each student based on common research interests. The pre-dissertation advisor meets with the student regularly and helps to select courses, arrange research rotations, and refine research interests. The pre-dissertation advisor often continues as the dissertation advisor, though it is acceptable for students to change advisors as research interests become more clearly defined. Importantly, all EH PhD students have office space in the Talbot Building in close proximity to faculty.
The EH PhD program requires coursework in environmental health, epidemiology and biostatistics, organized as core requirements, track-specific requirements, and electives. Three tracks of study are defined within the environmental health doctoral program:
- Environmental epidemiology
- Exposure assessment
Our PhD students engage in full-time coursework for the first one to two years of the program, a minimum of 32 credits (with prior relevant master’s degree) or 64 credits (without prior relevant master’s degree) depending on level of preparation prior to admission.
The EH PhD program requires coursework in environmental health, epidemiology and biostatistics, organized as core requirements, track-specific requirements, and electives. The common curriculum consists of six courses that are required of all PhD students in the EH program. Most full-time students will complete these courses during the first year of study. Together these courses provide students with a foundation in the science and methods of environmental health, including the translation of science into policy.
Major Training Areas
- The emphasis in Environmental Epidemiology focuses on the design and conduct of studies of specific environmental exposures and of diseases with environmental causes, tracking diseases and hazards (surveillance), and the methodology used to assess patterns of environmentally related diseases. Classes are taught in close collaboration with the Department of Epidemiology and include specialized instruction in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and statistical methods. This emphasis prepares students for research in various sectors as well as employment in public health departments and consulting.
- The curriculum for students choosing to focus in environmental epidemiology comprises four courses, including three epidemiology courses and one biostatistics course. Together, these required courses ensure that the student gets rigorous training in quantitative research methods.
- The courses in the exposure assessment track provide hands-on teaching of the tools for assessing exposure to, and associated health risks of, environmental hazards found in air, water, soil, and other parts of the environment. Public health department practice, work with agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, research, consulting, and exposure assessment positions are all compatible with the training offered in this emphasis.
- The area of study in exposure assessment has four required courses. Some of the required courses for the exposure and risk assessment area of study also appear in a few of the other areas of study.
- The courses in the toxicology track provide hands-on teaching of the tools for determining the risk to human health associated with exposure to environmental hazards found in air, water, soil, and other environmental media. There is an emphasis on examining the dose-response for environmental hazards and understanding biological mechanisms that lead to the associated health risks. Our graduates are well suited for working in public health and environmental health agencies, conducting academic research, and pursuing successful environmental consulting careers.
- The required courses for the area of study in toxicology are comprised of three advanced courses in Environmental Health, as well as an advanced Biostatistics course.
Students are encouraged to consider a minor from the other major training areas or from the following training areas: Biostatistics, Community Based Research, Environmental Infectious Diseases, Environmental Health Policy, Urban Ecology and Climate Change, Biogeosciences and Risk Assessment.
Our research rotation program allows students to become involved in research during their first year and is designed to assist students in the process of identifying a dissertation topic. Specifically, students participate in a research rotation during each of their first three semesters (fall, spring, summer). Students work with their advisor to select research rotations based on their interests, which provides opportunities to work with different faculty members and gain experience on different projects.
Seminar, Proseminar, Journal Club, and Research Retreat
Our PhD students participate in a doctoral seminar (every week), a doctoral proseminar (every two weeks), a journal club (monthly) and an annual research retreat, all of which represent key elements of our program.
- The Gijs van Seventer Environmental Health Seminar provides trainees the opportunity to engage in an academic seminar addressing substantive topics in environmental health. Students are required to attend and give at least one presentation per year.
- The Doctoral Proseminar (short for professional seminar) meets every two weeks. Proseminar sessions alternate between a topic session (e.g., grant writing, strategies for preparing a manuscript, strategies for managing data, etc) and lunch with visiting seminar speakers.
- The Journal Club allows students to gain experience reviewing and critiquing scientific journal articles, stay abreast of the literature in the field, and become more familiar with diverse topics across the field of environmental health.
- The annual Research Retreat is held each fall at an off-site location over 1½ days. The primary goals of the research retreat are to: enhance the cohesiveness of faculty and students while sharing ideas and developing new opportunities; provide trainees with an additional opportunity to present their research; allow trainees to hear about ongoing research projects both within and outside the department; and create an event that facilitates the social and professional transition of new trainees and new faculty members in the program. The agenda for the retreat includes oral and poster presentations by faculty members and trainees.
After completing coursework, each trainee submits an application to the Doctoral Committee for approval to take qualifying exams (by the end of their fifth semester). The application includes identification of one major and two minor fields, a copy of their unofficial transcript, and a draft dissertation proposal. The qualifying examination committee includes three faculty members with expertise in the major and minor fields. The qualifying exam includes both a written and an oral component.
Dissertation and Defense
Each student works closely with their advisor and committee while conducting their research and preparing their dissertation. Ultimately, students present their dissertation in a public forum such that all interested faculty, students, and staff are welcome to attend.
Our program is committed to providing doctoral students with opportunities to develop their teaching skills. Each year, our department offers teaching assistant opportunities associated with several different classes (e.g. EH705, EH707, EH710, EH730, EH757, EH804, EH866, EH811). Students are required to serve as a teaching assistant in at least one class during their time in the program, though most choose to do so more than once.
Mentoring in teaching is provided through special topic sessions in the biweekly proseminar and informally via feedback from course instructors while serving as teaching assistants. Additionally, for our students interested in an academic career, we encourage participation in BU Doctoral Student Workshops.
We ensure that each of our PhD students has all of the following:
- Full financial support, including the NIH-specified pre-doctoral stipend, tuition and fees, health insurance, a computer, and travel to scientific conferences;
- A faculty mentor with the experience and expertise necessary to train the student in their area of interest; and
- Research opportunities that are consistent with the student’s research interests that can serve as the basis for their dissertation.
A T32 training grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PI: McClean, $1.3 million), in combination with a training grant from the National Science Foundation (PIs: Levy, Templer, Hutyra), individual training awards, and individual research grants, provides the resources necessary to ensure that our PhD students receive full financial support for the duration of their program.
Current PhD in Environmental Health Students
Komal is interested in applying knowledge gained from research to help communities solve real-world public health problems. The main objective of her dissertation research is to understand the interplay of environmental and social risk factors associated with pediatric asthma morbidity in a manner that is relevant to intervention, disparities, and policy analyses. Past research projects include applying modelling methods developed for research to issues relevant to city/local public health decision-making, examining exposure to PCBs from air and from consumption of seafood in an environmental justice community, reviewing regulations and monitoring of PCBs in air at contaminated waste sites, and assessing exposure to lead from backyard chicken egg consumption.
Julia Anglen Bauer
Julia investigates novel techniques in assessing manganese exposure and children's neurodevelopment in both local and international communities. Her research includes: mixtures research, biomarkers of manganese exposure including baby teeth, and animal-human translational neurobehavioral tasks.
Paige is interested in using GIS and remote sensing to look at the public health co-benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, such increased greenness and reducing air pollution. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeosceince and Environmental Health.
Laura is interested in understanding how climate change mitigation efforts can also benefit overall public health, with the goal of supporting policies that promote equitable and healthy energy system transformations. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health.
Lindsey's research focuses on prenatal and environmental epidemiology and examines how climate change impacts the health of vulnerable populations. Specifically, her dissertation examines how heat and air pollution impact the health of pregnant women and developing fetuses.
Kate's research interests include indoor air pollution and energy use modeling in buildings to understand the tradeoffs for air quality and health. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health, focused on exploring these topics in urban settings, particularly with the effects of climate change and the applications to policy-making.
Jessica’s dissertation aims to characterize exposure to, and health impacts associated with chemicals in consumer products among nail salon workers, pregnant women, and their newborn and young children. Her current work focuses on semi-volatile organic compounds, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, phthalates, terephthalates, and organophosphate esters.
Alexa is a first-year doctoral student, currently interested in investigating exposures to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and the health impacts of these chemicals
Stephanie's research interests in environmental epidemiology include the effects of air pollution, noise pollution, and the built environment on cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mental health outcomes. She is interested in studying how multiple exposures interact to impact human health.
Leila is interested in applying environmental epidemiological research to evaluate the health impacts of climate action plans, with an emphasis on vulnerable populations. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health.
Raquel Jimenez Celsi
Raquel's research focuses on understanding the human health impacts of air pollution, vegetation, and other exposures in urban settings, and how the distribution of such exposures might exacerbate underlying social inequalities.
Chloe investigates the impact of air and noise pollution associated with aviation activities. She is currently examining how arrival aircraft contribute to the ambient ultrafine particle (UFP) concentration near Boston Logan International Airport and the public health impact of aircraft noise pollution on developing hypertension in three large nation-wide cohorts in the U.S.
Daniel D. Nguyen
Daniel is currently investigating the relationships between aircraft noise exposure and adverse health effects such as hypertension and cardiovascular disease. He is broadly interested in the application of novel epidemiologic and statistical methods to environmental health research.
Greylin’s interests lie at the intersection of toxicology and policy. She’s currently working in the lab to understand how chemical mixtures affect health endpoints in vitro and in vivo, and hopes to translate this information into policy-relevant recommendations.
Jennifer studies environmental epidemiology and her research interests include the effects of consumer products and indoor pollutants on reproductive, perinatal and pediatric health. Current projects focus on the effect of polyfluoroalkyl substances on pediatric health outcomes.
Zoe investigates the relationships between heat stress, volume depletion, muscle injury, agrichemical and heavy metal exposure, and genetic susceptibility in the development of acute kidney injury and chronic kidney disease in two occupational cohorts in Central America. Her research is a part of ongoing investigations into the etiology of Mesoamerican nephropathy. She is interested in occupational epidemiology and the use of epidemiologic methods for investigating underlying mechanisms of exposure-disease relationships.
Matt is interested in the climate and health co-benefits of sustainable transportation. His research interests include: air quality impacts of vehicle fleet electrification; physical activity benefits of active mobility; and, how new mobility modes (e.g. stand-up electric scooters, ridehail services, and autonomous vehicles) can improve health outcomes and quality of life through positive disruption.
PhD in Environmental Health Alumni
James Watt, MS, PhD
James graduated in September 2016, with a specialization in toxicology and risk assessment. After earning a BA in Kinesiology and Applied Physiology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, James developed his investigative research skills as a laboratory technician in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the Boston University School of Medicine. James became interested in learning to apply these skills to broader, public health-related fields and completed a Master of Science degree in Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health.
His doctoral dissertation research with Dr. Jennifer Schlezinger focused on environmental endocrine disruptors implicated in obesity. James used laboratory-based approaches to determine the mechanisms and consequences of nuclear receptor-mediated fat cell differentiation in response to environmental contaminant exposure. Specifically, James focused on the bone marrow compartment, a complex microenvironment in which perturbations have implications on bone health and structure, as well as on the developing immune system. He was working in collaboration with Dr. Tom Webster on developing predictive models of nuclear receptor activation for use in chemical mixture screening assays.
James has earned the Dean’s Award for Student Research at Boston University’s Scholar’s Day for his work in environmental toxicology and presented at the 2014 Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting in Phoenix. As a past trainee supported by Boston University’s Superfund Research Program, James attends and presented his work at the annual NIEHS Superfund Research Program Meeting, a national conference that draws together a range of academic researchers and experts in environmental health, environmental engineering, and public health.
Rebecca Laws, MPH, PhD
Rebecca Laws graduated in September 2015, with a specialization in environmental epidemiology and exposure assessment. She previously received a Masters in Public Health from BUSPH and a Bachelors of Science in Biology from Duke University. She further enhanced these skills as a research assistant at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and at the Exposure Biology Research Group at BUSPH. She was interested in investigating exposure-related disease, particularly in vulnerable populations and environmental justice communities.
Rebecca's dissertation research was focused on an epidemic of chronic kidney disease in Central America. The epidemic disproportionately affects young, male agricultural workers, and although many occupational and nonoccupational causes have been hypothesized, the etiologic agent remains unknown. Her research aimed to characterize the type of kidney damage, evaluate occupational factors, and investigate the role of metals exposure in a cohort of Nicaraguan workers in the sugarcane, mining, stevedoring, and construction industries.
Rebecca’s work has been recognized at the BU Science and Engineering Symposium, where she earned the Dean’s Award for Student Research. She was awarded an EPA STAR Fellowship to support her research, and previously presented her work at the annual conference of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology in Seattle, WA.
Stefani Penn, MS, PhD
Stefani graduated in September 2015, with a specialization in exposure and risk assessment. She received a Master of Science in Exposure Sciences from the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University. She took an interest in urban environmental health impacts and gained further experience working as an intern at the Central Puget Sound Transit Authority in Seattle, WA before coming to the Environmental Health Department at BUSPH to study air quality exposures and viable interventions to improve human health.
Stefani’s dissertation was focused on determining the contribution of airports to local and regional air pollutant exposures and health impacts using various methods. Her work included a technical comparison of monitoring-based regression models and atmospheric dispersion models for predicting aviation impacts on local air quality, assessment of airport-related emissions on concentrations of harmful combustion-related pollutants and their effects on health in comparison to other polluting sources, as well as an analysis of intervening policies appropriate for reduction of source-specific public health impacts.
For her modeling-based work, Stefani received First Prize in the FAA’s 10th Annual Joseph A. Hartman Student Paper Competition and sat on the Aviation Emissions Characterization Panel providing expertise on local air quality assessments at the Department of Transportation. She presented work at the International Society of Exposure Science’s annual conference in Cincinnati, OH.
Emma Preston, MPH, PhD
Emma Preston graduated in September 2017, with a specialization in exposure assessment and environmental epidemiology. She previously received a Masters in Public Health in Global Environmental Health from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a Bachelors of Arts in Environmental Studies from Dartmouth College. Additionally, Emma enhanced her exposure science and analytical chemistry skills as a research assistant working with Dr. Dana Boyd Barr and Dr. P. Barry Ryan at the Analytical Exposure Science and Environmental Health Laboratory at Emory University.
Emma’s dissertation research was focused on human exposure to consumer product chemicals and endocrine disruption in two Boston area cohorts. Specifically, she was investigating flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals and their potential effects on thyroid hormone homeostasis. Her research aimed to characterize human exposure to these chemicals, to investigate their individual effects on circulating thyroid hormones, and to use novel epidemiologic and statistical methods to model complex mixtures of these exposures.
Emma was supported by the NIH T32ES014562 training grant. She also presented her work at the annual Brominated Flame Retardant Conference in Indianapolis, IN.
Stephanie Kim, PhD
Stephanie graduated in May 2019, with a specialization in toxicology and epidemiology/biostatistics. She previously received a Masters of Science in Epidemiology from Brown University School of Public Health and a Bachelors of Arts in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She studied molecular and genetic epidemiology during her master’s studies and was interested in learning more about toxicology.
Her doctoral dissertation research with Dr. Jennifer Schlezinger focused on investigating metabolic health effects from exposures to various metabolism-disrupting chemicals (i.e. organotins, organophosphate flame retardants, etc.) often found in Superfund sites. Stephanie also learned from Dr. Stefano Monti and applied bioinformatic approaches to characterize the genetic and pathway perturbations of nuclear receptor-mediated fat cell differentiation and function upon exposures to environmental contaminants.
Stephanie has been awarded student research poster awards and Dr. Karen Wetterhahn Memoral Award from the NIEHS Superfund Research Program . As a past trainee supported by Boston University’s Superfund Research Program, she has attended and presented her work at the annual NIEHS Superfund Research Program conferences.
The majority of our graduates are interested in building independent research careers in the field of environmental health and therefore obtain post-doctoral training fellowships or other academic appointments at top research institutions. Some graduates instead decide to pursue careers as senior scientists at regulatory health agencies or as senior scientists at environmental consulting companies.
The BUSPH Career Office is available for students interested in learning more about career paths, networking and navigating the job search process. Students and alumni can e-mail the office at firstname.lastname@example.org to make an initial appointment.
Below is a summary of the institutions and organizations where graduates of our program have obtained positions.
Post-Doctoral Research Fellowships
Harvard School of Public Health, Brown University School of Public Health, Dartmouth Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research, Michigan University School of Public Health, University of Washington School of Public Health, Duke University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Léa-Roback Research Centre on Health Inequalities, Michigan Public Health Institute, Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University, Yale University Climate & Energy Institute, Channing Laboratory at Brigham & Women’s Hospital
Students & alumni can access the Fellowships section of the SPH Career Library
Positions in Academia
Boston University School of Public Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Northeastern University, University of California – Irvine, Dickinson College, East Tennessee State University, University of Southern Maine, Clark University, Brandeis University
Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Minnesota Department of Public Health, California Department of Public Health, United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine
Students & alumni can access the Government Agencies section of the SPH Career Library
Environmental Health & Engineering, Abt Associates, Global Health Solutions, The Lifeline Group Students & alumni can access a list of Consulting Firms in the SPH Career Library
PhD in Environmental Health Admissions Requirements
For inquiries regarding the PhD program, please contact Dr Birgit Claus Henn, Director of Doctoral Training for the Department of Environmental Health.