The PhD program in Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health provides students with specialized training and research experience in environmental epidemiology, exposure science, spatial epidemiology/GIS, climate and health, risk assessment, and toxicology, with an emphasis on environmental justice and community-engaged work. The program prepares graduates for careers in advanced research, teaching, policy, and leadership, and has been designed to ensure that students receive the training, research experience, resources, and support necessary to be successful. The average time to degree completion is 4.6 years.
Our program is one of a small number of academic units nationally that specializes in investigating exposure-related health outcomes in community settings. Faculty are engaged with policy makers, community organizations, and vulnerable populations, working across numerous countries and domestically at the national, state, and local levels. Our dedicated faculty are committed to providing trainees with research opportunities that are consistent with a student’s research interests and that draw from our department’s experience conducting rigorous, innovative, and socially engaged research. We are also committed to providing inclusive educational experiences for students from a range of backgrounds, and are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion both within our department and across the field of environmental health. Please see the website for our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for more information on our ongoing activities.
The Department of Environmental Health engages in a wide range of collaborative research. Major areas of interest include the health effects of air pollution and a changing climate, such as through the Center for Climate and Health at BUSPH; complex mixtures of chemicals, such as chemicals contained in consumer products as well as contaminants of water, food, and soil; non-chemical hazards such as noise, heat, and social stressors; and combinations of chemical and non-chemical exposures that accumulate or interact to harm health. Vulnerable populations such as children, military veterans, and people living in poverty in the U.S. and internationally are of special interest to us.
Students are engaged in research projects with faculty throughout the program. To gain research experience and identify a dissertation topic, students complete research rotations with faculty. All PhD students also serve as teaching assistants at least once during their time in the program and are involved with departmental activities such as seminar planning, journal clubs, and an annual department retreat.
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. Coursework is organized as six required courses, additional courses in three different training areas, and electives.
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.
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. 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.
Seminar, Proseminar, Journal Club, Department Retreat
Our PhD students participate in a doctoral seminar (every week), a doctoral proseminar (monthly), 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.
- The Doctoral Proseminar (short for professional seminar) covers topics not typically addressed in traditional coursework but critical to professional development (e.g., grant writing, strategies for preparing a manuscript, strategies for managing data, etc.).
- 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 EH Department Retreat is held each fall at an off-site location over 1-1½ 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 discuss 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.
After completing coursework, each trainee submits an application to the Doctoral Committee for approval to take qualifying exams. The application consists of a dissertation proposal in the form of a federal grant proposal and a copy of their unofficial transcript. The qualifying exam includes a written and an oral component.
Each student works closely with their advisor and dissertation committee while conducting their research and preparing their dissertation. The dissertation takes the form of 3 publishable papers, plus an abstract, introduction, and conclusion. Ultimately, students present their dissertation in a public forum that all individuals are welcome to attend.
We ensure that each of our admitted PhD students has all of the following:
- Full financial support, including stipend, tuition and fees, health insurance, a computer, and support for 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: Claus Henn), in combination with traineeships through the BU Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (PIs: Levy, Templer, Hutyra), individual training awards, and individual research grants, provide the resources necessary to ensure that our PhD students receive full financial support for the duration of their program.
Review the EH PhD Program Competencies
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;
- 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.
Statement on Holistic Admissions
The admissions committee will be looking, as always, at the entire application in their evaluation including transcript, cumulative GPA, recommendations, personal statements, and research experience. GRE scores are not required and will not be considered by the admissions committee. We encourage applicants to include special circumstances as well as achievements that may not be apparent due to modified grading policies in their personal statements. This policy has been adopted to ensure that applicants are not differentially evaluated by admissions committees due to the varied impact of COVID-19 on individuals and/or due to the specific grading policies of their colleges/universities.
Profiles of Current Students
Advisor: Wendy J. Heiger-Bernays, PhD
Beth's dissertation research focuses on the health risks associated with combined sewer overflow events and sociodemographic patterns of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts. She is broadly interested in water resources, health, climate change, and ecosystem services.
Advisor: Jennifer J. Schlezinger, PhD
Greylin’s interests lie at the intersection of toxicology and policy. She is 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.
Advisor: Patrick L. Kinney, ScD
Matt focuses on quantifying the health impacts of active transportation and climate action. His work includes examining mortality implications of potential additional investment in walking and cycling infrastructure; disparities in traffic fatality rates per mile-traveled by race/ethnicity; and mortality and morbidity impacts from eliminating anthropogenic emissions originating from the City of Boston.
Fourth Years and Up
Pilar Botana Martinez
Advisor: M. Patricia Fabian, ScD
Pilar is interested in doing research at the intersection between indoor environmental health and climate change, with an equity lens. She prioritizes research goals that are actionable and benefit overburdened communities. Her current work quantifies indoor heat exposure in urban heat islands, explores the resilience of buildings to overheating, and identifies barriers to an equitable energy transition in affordable housing. Before joining the program, Pilar worked in the fields of architecture and urban planning for 18 years.
Advisor: Jonathan I. Levy, ScD
Laura is interested in analyzing how climate change mitigation efforts impact public health, with the goal of supporting policies that promote equitable and healthy communities. Specifically, her dissertation seeks to understand how different strategies to reduce transportation emissions in the Northeast impact existing pollution exposure inequities between populations. Laura is also a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN).
Advisor: Junenette L. Peters, ScD
Stephanie’s research interests lie at the intersection of exposure assessment, spatial science, and place-based epidemiology. Her current work investigates the health effects of built environment exposures on aging populations.
Advisor: Madeleine L. Scammell, DSc
Leila applies an environmental justice and community engagement lens to her work on heat exposure and vulnerability. Using quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods approaches, she works with collaborators in the department and at GreenRoots, a grassroots environmental justice organization, on the Chelsea and East Boston Heat Study (C-HEAT). Her dissertation work includes the development, comparison, and contextualization of Heat Vulnerability Indices for Massachusetts and Boston, the evaluation of the C-HEAT Photovoice project through decision-maker interviews, and a mixed-methods characterization of individual-level experiences with heat. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN).
Alina’s research is part of the Chelsea and East Boston Heat Study (C-HEAT), a collaborative project between GreenRoots, Inc. and BUSPH. She is specifically involved in community-engaged heat and air pollution exposure research, drawing on environmental epidemiology, exposure assessment, and qualitative methods.
Advisor: Kevin James Lane, PhD, MA
Sean investigates the impact of air pollution associated with aviation activities. He is examining how aircraft operations contribute to ambient ultrafine particle (UFP) concentrations near Boston Logan International Airport and how piston-engine aircraft using leaded aviation gasoline contribute to pollution exposure in communities near General Aviation Airports.
Advisor: Patricia A. Janulewicz Lloyd, DSc
Jennifer investigates the relationship between early life exposures to perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and PFAS mixtures, and pulmonary health in children. She is interested in exposure assessment of persistent organic pollutants and the use of epidemiologic methods for evaluating underlying mechanisms of exposure-disease relationships.
Advisor: Wendy J. Heiger-Bernays, PhD
Emily is interested in understanding how people are exposed to chemicals in their environment. Her research uses human biomonitoring methods to characterize exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). She is also interested in class-based approaches to addressing environmental toxicants for research and regulation. Specifically, her dissertation focuses on class-based analytical methods for defining and measuring PFAS, as well as characterizing dietary and non-dietary sources of PFAS in the general population. In addition to her research, Emily is a three-time recipient of the Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship through the Department of Education and African Studies Center at BU.
Advisor: Gregory Wellenius, ScD
Quinn is interested in applying spatial and statistical methods to understand how climate hazards impact human health. She is particularly interested in action-oriented research and identifying strategies to reduce health impacts. Her work spans several aspects of climate and health. For example, her dissertation focuses on how extreme weather and climate change alter the distribution of vector-borne diseases. She has additionally been exploring the use of novel data sources to understand population responses to extreme heat events. Quinn is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN).
Advisor: Madeleine L. Scammell, DSc
Jocelyn investigates the exposures related to the progression of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology in El Salvador and Nicaragua. She is assessing the validity of new biomarkers in the progression of the disease through epidemiological and toxicologic tools. She is interested in the connection between the external and internal mediators of disease.
Advisor: Jessica H. Leibler, DrPH, MS
Samantha (Sam) is interested in the health of food workers and hopes to better understand effects of environmental and agricultural exposures on the human microbiome. Her dissertation work focuses on metal mixtures and bioinformatic techniques to understand relationships between metal exposure and disruptions in the urinary microbiome in a population at high risk of kidney disease. She also works with a community group to advocate for safe compost for community gardeners.
Advisor: Madeleine L. Scammell, DSc
Kathryn’s research interests include researching causes of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology, finding strategies to reduce exposures to consumer product chemicals, and translating science for policy change.
Advisor: Amruta Nori-Sarma, PhD
Flannery is interested in innovative environmental epidemiology methods for studying climate change effects on public health and policy implications. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN).
Advisor: Patrick L. Kinney, ScD
Beverly is interested in investigating the impacts of climate change on public health and how adaptation measures can be used to mitigate these impacts. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN).
Advisor: Kimberly A. Sullivan, PhD
Noelle’s research interests include methodological approaches for assessing the effects of chemical mixtures, particularly for endocrine disrupting chemicals, on child health outcomes. She is also interested in investigating the effects of gestational exposures on reproductive and birth outcomes.
Advisor: Birgit G. Claus Henn, ScD
Emily is interested in applying environmental epidemiology methods to investigate how chemical mixtures affect reproductive, perinatal, and pediatric health, with an emphasis on vulnerable populations. Her current projects focus on the effect of metal mixtures on children's birth outcomes, as well as the effect of SVOC mixtures on childhood asthma morbidity.
Advisor: Madeleine L. Scammell, DSc
Jonathan is broadly interested in investigating the design of the built environment through a public health lens, particularly in relation to climate change and health equity. Specific research interests include how transportation systems, land use decisions, and urban designs impact health and how to use public health as a catalyst for change. He is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN).
Advisor: Jonathan Buonocore, ScD
Erin is interested in researching the health and ecological impacts of the oil and gas industry to understand climate mitigation strategies, health-informed decarbonization plans, and adaptation efforts that can benefit both human and ecosystem health. She is a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health.
Advisor: Maria Argos, PhD
Margaret is interested in the effects that environmental exposures have on gene expression through epigenetic modulation. She has worked previously with PFAS exposures and is interested in working with a variety of environmental exposures, including heavy metals.
Our graduates successfully obtain positions as postdoctoral research fellows and faculty members at academic research institutions; as senior scientists at environmental consulting companies, nonprofit organizations, and other private industries; and as senior scientists at regulatory health and other government agencies.
The BUSPH Career Office is available for students interested in learning more about career paths, networking and navigating the job search process.
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. Kevin Lane, Interim Director of Doctoral Training for the Department of Environmental Health.