Student Research Experiences – Spring 2017

Through support from HERCULES and the Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) Program, five MPH students worked on HERCULES-related research projects during the 2016-2017 academic year.  Read more about their experiences below.

Investigating Immunotoxic Effects of Pyrethroids

Christopher Carr

During my time as a Masters of Public Health student in Epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health, I had the opportunity to work as a graduate research assistant in Dr. Malu Tansey’s lab. Dr. Tansey’s lab investigates how neuroinflammatory and immune system responses alter gene-environment interactions and how these responses play a role in the risk of neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disease. Over the past year, I worked on a project that is focused on studying the immunotoxic effect pyrethroids have in vitro. Pyrethroids are an ingredient in common household insecticides that have been linked to acute toxicity in humans. It is hypothesized that exposure to these compounds synergizes with a hyper-responsive immune system to increase risk for late-onset Parkinson’s Disease. This hypothesis was developed based on the finding that homozygosity (GG) at a non-coding single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), the rs3192882 SNP, in the HLA region of the MHC II is associated with increased risk for Parkinson’s Disease. Since the MHC II is responsible for antigen presentation to the adaptive immune system, it is hypothesized to be the site that links environmental exposure with genetic susceptibility to increase risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Our lab is coordinating with Emory’s Department of Neurology to obtain human blood. I had the opportunity to design my own experimental conditions that test different concentrations of pyrethroids and their effect in monocytes and T-cells. My specific tasks involve isolating monocytes and T-cells from human blood using Ficoll-Paque Density Centrifugation and CD14+ and CD3+ paramagnetic beads. I also run flow cytometry on the cells I have isolated and stained. Specifically, I have been looking at how different pyrethroid concentrations affect cell surface receptor protein (HLA-DR and HLA-DQ) induction in Interferon Gamma stimulated monocytes and T-cell proliferation.

Investigating Hardships Experienced by Persons with Dementia

Dominique Hayward

During the second year of my MPH Health Policy program at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, I began working under Dr. William Hu in the Department of Neurology.

The work involved using an exploratory mix-methods approach to determine what hardships are experienced by Persons with Dementia (PwD) and their caregivers. Information collected from three 2-hour focus groups revealed that stigma due to misinformation surrounding dementia was a major hardship experienced by families affected by dementia. Data from the first focus group was used to design a quantitative tool (survey) that assesses the level of awareness and stigma surrounding dementia. After undergoing three Test-Retest Reliability assessments, a survey with a Cronbach’s Alpha coefficient of 0.874 was made. The final version of the survey has been distributed to our partners in the United States of America, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It was premiered on June 25, 2017 at the Dementia Conference and Technology Showcase in Atlanta, GA.

Investigating the Effects of Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticle Exposures at the Cellular Level

Michael Hussey

I spent the majority of my first year as an MSPH student in Environmental Health and Epidemiology working in the lab of Dr. Christine Payne.  The lab’s work for HERCULES centers around investigation of titanium dioxide nanoparticle exposures and the effects of these compounds at the cellular level.  Past Payne lab experiments have examined not only the cell membrane and serum protein interactions of nanoparticles, but also the epigenetic and generational effects of P25 TiO2 particles on protein expression within cell lines.

My fall semester was spent aiding Dr. Payne in planning and preparing a future in-vitro study of chronic, low-dose nanoparticle exposure.  I spent a great deal of time combing the literature of existing toxicological and epidemiologic studies on fine and ultrafine TiO2 exposure to provide Dr. Payne with summaries of respiratory and digestive outcomes for various particle grades as well as updated information on TiO2 production and usage.  These materials were used in the writing of grant proposals to fund future exposure work based in part based upon the methods I found in the literature.  In addition to my written summaries, I also composed multiple figures for use in HERCULES research presentations illustrating my findings on nanoparticle exposure, movement and deposition within the body.

This spring my focus was primarily on writing and researching material for publication in the American Chemical Society Journal of Physical Chemistry.  ACS requested that Dr. Payne submit a perspectives letter on the work the lab had been doing and the applicability of physical chemistry to public health, and my role was to research and compose introductory materials on the history of public health and the roles that physical chemists have played in the past.  As a summary of my previous semester’s work, I also spent further time composing anatomical figures modeling human exposure routes for this publication, a process that gave me new technological skills that I can carry forward into my own work.

This process, building upon my developing skills in environmental health, toxicology and epidemiology – and tapping into my previous work in the history of science at Boston College – has been instrumental in further developing my scientific writing and demonstrating the multidisciplinary work of public health professionals.  The skills I have gained throughout my time spent in the Payne lab will prove invaluable as I begin my own Masters thesis work in toxicological risk assessment.

Translating Science into Plain Language

Maria Jolly

I have just completed my first year as an MSPH student studying Environmental Health and Epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. During this year, I had the opportunity to be a part of the HERCULES Exposome Research Center with Dr. Melanie Pearson and Erin Lebow-Skelley on the Community Outreach and Engagement Core. This experience allowed me to learn about the variety of research the HERCULES Center does while improving my research translation and qualitative data gathering skills.

This past year, I helped coordinate the Stakeholder Advisory Board meetings, conducted qualitative interviews with HERCULES community grant recipients, and improved some of the educational material and exercises, which will be used for the HERCULES Roadshow.

My main task for the year was to prepare research translations (1-page, plain language summaries) of some key research that was conducted in the Atlanta area by HERCULES Center investigators. Since September of 2016, I have created 6 translations from 8 peer-reviewed articles. These articles have gone through significant editing, as getting buy-in from the scientists and the community stakeholders is vital to ensure that the translations are accurate to the science, educational, and easy to understand. We are also working on creating visual infographics of the papers to help deliver the scientific information in multiple ways.

This year has been a great learning experience and has been very fulfilling for me personally as these translations allow the research Emory University conducts to be accessible and usable by community members.

Michigan PBB Cohort Study

Emma Rosen

During my second year working with the Michigan PBB Registry team as a REAL student, I continued to develop skills to help marry my two fields of Environmental Health and Epidemiology.

Dr. Michele Marcus follows a large cohort of Michiganders who were exposed to a group of flame retardants, Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBB), following an agricultural disaster in the 1970s. Forty years after the original contamination incident, Dr. Marcus and her team continue to investigate various health outcomes among different generations — those directly exposed, those exposed in utero or via breast milk, and the grandchildren of those originally exposed.

Having worked with this community for two years, I became involved with participant interaction. I communicate with community members to address any concerns they may have, answer their questions about our findings, and compile a database of those who wish to participate in future studies.

Additionally, I have worked in various capacities to help implement the latest grant we received. In preparation for an epigenetic study requiring a specific exposure pattern among families, I reviewed various sources to compile a comprehensive analysis of the family relationships within this cohort. Furthermore, one of our aims involves performing a clinical trial to determine if a weight-loss medication can help accelerate the rid of PBB elimination from the bodies of our participants. I have worked extensively with the implementation of this aim including assisting with methodology, study design, and communication with various stakeholders. Lastly, I completed my Master’s thesis with Dr. Marcus and the PBB team in which I analyzed the effect of PBB exposure level on the rate of digestive cancers in this cohort.