REAL Student Research Experiences: 2022-2023

The Rollins Earn and Learn (REAL) program is a signature program funded by Rollins that offers full-time MPH/MSPH students valuable opportunities to earn while they learn through applied public health experiences in real-world settings. Through HERCULES co-funding, the Center supported 11 REAL students supervised by HERCULES investigators for the 2022-2023 academic year.  A summary of each student’s experience is provided below. 

Chiara Brust

As an MPH student in Global Environmental Health, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Eri Saikawa and Dr. Lisa Thompson on the ECOLECTIVOS study in Guatemala. This study aims to reduce exposure to household air pollution generated by the practice of burning plastic waste by implementing an intervention in several communities across the country. My primary role in the study was to analyze ambient air pollution data throughout the country and identify trends in high air pollution events. This involved working with a large dataset and using statistical software to analyze the data. Through this work, I gained valuable experience in data analysis and learned how to apply statistical methods to real-world environmental health problems.

In addition to data analysis, I also learned a great deal about community interventions and the Guatemalan culture. The ECOLECTIVOS study involved working closely with community members to promote alternative waste management strategies. Overall, my experience working on the ECOLECTIVOS study provided me with valuable skills and insights into the field of global environmental health, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this important work.


Emma Casey

At the end of my first year as an Epidemiology MSPH student, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant under Dr. Anke Huels. Generally, the Huels Lab’s mission is to improve the understanding of environmental risk factors, particularly in susceptible populations that are already at a higher risk for disease.  

Throughout my REAL research assistant position, I conducted epigenome-wide association analyses (EWAS) using newborn DNA methylation (from cord blood) generated by Illumina 450K or EPIC arrays and phenotype data from PACE, including with the Drakenstein Child Health Study (DCHS), to elucidate the effects of early life exposures on childhood development. I supported ongoing PACE projects and meta-analyses, prepared summary slides to review results, and consistently contributed to the consortium approach in research aiming to achieve greater statistical power for novel findings. In meta-analyses that combine data from several cohorts participating in PACE, I have been working on a project whose outcome is childhood internalizing and externalizing behaviors measured with the Child Behavior Checklist. In this position, I carefully follow PACE analysis plans to properly implement EWAS, beginning with the quality control step, including the summarization of phenotypic data, and ending with the meta-analysis of EWAS data. I have also gained skills in efficiently managing project data and writing/reviewing R or Linux scripts to assure the accuracy of information.  

While working in this position, I also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Huels on another project concerning metabolomics and neuropathology in the Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center’s brain bank. Here, I conducted literature reviews on metabolomics studies of the human brain and other AD-related biospecimens for grant application and manuscript preparation where I uncovered the mechanistic role of the medial prefrontal cortex in AD, supporting the inclusion of the frontal cortex in metabolomics research, and wrote supporting paragraphs for the grant. Throughout this role, I gained grant writing experience and an understanding of what goes into a successful grant application and developed my research and writing skills. 

Amy Chung

As a first-year epidemiology MPH student with a passion for data analysis, I worked with Dr. Xin Hu at Emory University’s School of Medicine as a Data Analyst on a project investigating the associations between environmental chemical levels and metabolic health indicators in the Center of Health Discovery and Well Being (CHDWB) cohort. The project focused on the link between environmental chemical exposure, metabolic responses of the chemicals and health outcomes with obesity/metabolic diseases as the endpoints. A small subset of CHDWB subjects were categorized into three phenotypes: Metabolically Healthy Non-Obese (MHNO) with n=84, Metabolically Unhealthy Obese (MUO) with n=62, and Metabolically Healthy Obese (MHO) with n=68. Using R and SAS, I performed statistical analysis to assess the distributions of demographic and clinical variables in this cohort. I then tested the differences in health parameters such as BMI, waist measurements, levels of blood lipid panels among three phenotypes. In addition, I helped annotate environmental chemicals detected by gas chromatography coupled with high resolution mass spectrometry (GC-HRMS) to test the associations between environmental chemical levels and clinically measured health parameters. I also helped organize and process the metabolomics data to understand the metabolic responses that were associated with the phenotypes and the chemical levels. The processed data will be used to develop integrative analysis of metabolomics and exposomics data in the future. This experience allowed me to gain valuable skills in applying epidemiological methods, analyzing omics and clinical data using biostatistics and informatics, and interpreting results for the important research questions related to environmental origins of obesity. 

This position as a REAL data analyst was invaluable to me as it allowed me to apply the skills, I had acquired from my epidemiology statistical programming course. In this role, I was responsible for managing, cleaning, and organizing data, which were essential skills that I had learned in both SAS and R. These skills enabled me to work efficiently and effectively in this role, and I was able to produce high-quality outputs that were instrumental in the success of the projects I worked on. Moreover, my experience in the Biostatistics courses was incredibly beneficial in this role. I was able to apply many different statistical analysis tests to test hypotheses with exposure and outcome to determine their significance levels. This allowed me to analyze data in depth and identify trends and patterns that were crucial in understanding the results of the projects.

I also developed strong presentation and communication skills by preparing summary reports, preparing a PowerPoint presentation, and creating figures and tables for manuscripts. Overall, this experience has further solidified my passion for data analysis in the field of environmental health and epidemiology. The experience I gained as a data analyst through this experience provided me with a valuable opportunity to develop my skills in integrative omics data analysis tools. These tools are essential in identifying the biological mechanisms that underlie the relationship between environmental chemical exposures and metabolic diseases. As a result, I decided to integrate this experience into my upcoming APE (Applied Practice Experience) training. This training will allow me to further develop my skills and knowledge in this field, enabling me to make even more significant contributions to future research projects.

Victoria Dunkley

During my tenure as an MPH candidate in Epidemiology, I had the extreme fortune to work for the Michigan PBB Registry under Dr. Michele Marcus. With over 7500 members, the Michigan PBB Registry engages in community-facing research that addresses health concerns of those directly and indirectly exposed to polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) through an agricultural contamination incident in 1973-74. Over the past year, my work has consisted of engaging with the community and external business partners, analyzing clinical trial data, and developing a continuing medical education course for physicians to increase their knowledge of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).  Through my work, I have achieved important deliverables for the PBB community. The combination of community engagement and data analysis skills I have built have made me a well-rounded public health professional.

One of my most significant roles with the PBB team has been contributing to our grant-funded continuing medical education course. Working alongside Hercules’s Dr. Melanie Pearson and an external business partner, I conducted literature reviews, identified gaps in physician knowledge, and developed content to help physicians identify and communicate with patients exposed to EDCs. This work is meaningful to PBB community members, who sometimes feel healthcare providers weren’t receptive to their health concerns. Through evidence-based research and health communication modalities, the final course will educate healthcare providers on up-to-date research on EDCs that may impact their patients’ health and aid in improving patient-physician interactions.

Ben Kessler

I worked as a graduate research assistant with the Environmental Metabolomics and Exposomics (EMERGE) research group.  EMERGE utilizes high throughput omics techniques, especially high-resolution metabolomics, to investigate the molecular mechanisms that link multi-dimensional environmental exposures with disease etiologies.  Under the guidance of Donghai Liang, Ph.D. MPH, I utilized data from the Traffic Exposure, Maternal Metabolome, and Birth Outcomes (TEMMBO) study, a maternal-child cohort of African American women from Atlanta.  Previous analyses from the TEMMBO study have shown that traffic-related air pollution exposure is associated with adverse birth outcomes such as preterm birth, spontaneous abortion, and small for gestational age status through various altered metabolic pathways.  While dietary data was collected from the pregnant mothers during clinic visits, no one has incorporated these data into their work.  To address these knowledge gaps, I sought to understand how these perinatal exposures might influence birth outcomes such as birth weight and small for gestational age status since diet and air pollution can both influence maternal metabolism.

After compiling and cleaning the data, defining periods of air pollution exposure during the first trimester and throughout the entire course of pregnancy for each study participant, and building different models, I found that certain nutrients interact with air pollution exposure to lessen its negative impact of increasing risk for being born as small for gestational age and having low birth weight.  I hope to stay with HERCULES and EMERGE as a second year MPH student and build on this work as the foundation for my ILE thesis.  My future research will leverage the untargeted metabolomics data from the pregnant mothers to contextualize my previous findings by highlighting potential biochemical pathways through which diet and air pollution exposure could influence birth outcome risk.

Isabella Martin

Throughout the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Dr. Melanie Pearson and Erin Lebow-Skelley as part of the HERCULES Community Engagement Core (CEC). The CEC provides technical advice and funding to GA communities interested in investigating and addressing various environmental health issues in their neighborhoods via the Clarence “Shaheed” Dubois Exposome Roadshow and Community Grant Program. This year, I’ve provided assistance to roadshow grant recipients both at the starting phase of the program, where community members are deciding what environmental health issue to focus their work on, and in the sustainability phase, where community members are figuring out next steps for action or continued investigation. The environmental health issues that our roadshow grant recipients aim to address impact neighborhoods across ATL, increasing the need to spread awareness about any findings or action grant recipients achieve. I’ve helped translate findings from roadshow grant recipients into posters and infographics and presented these findings to the greater ATL community at Atlanta Science Festival events.

I’ve also worked closely with the Peoplestown Flooding Pilot, a HERCULES-sponsored collaboration between Dr. Marlene Wolfe and the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation. This project is investigating tap water and floodwater contamination following storms in the Peoplestown neighborhood; its research questions are directed by the Peoplestown Working Group, a group of Peoplestown residents and Emory staff who meet monthly to discuss where flooding occurs, neighborhood engagement, and project logistics. I’ve learned about all facets of the research process through the Peoplestown Flooding Pilot — creating surveys and sample collection tools, facilitating Working Group meetings, identifying and collaborating with community leaders, mapping key flooding sites, and more. My experience with HERCULES has reframed what I see as responsible and productive environmental health research, as well as how academic research can create positive change. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work with the CEC staff and the communities engaged in both its pilot and roadshow programs.

Alina Merceron

During my year working with the Community Engagement Core, I provided technical support by analyzing qualitative survey data using hand-coding methods. I also played a key role in increasing community engagement with the center’s activities. To achieve this, I created visually appealing infographics and directly communicated with community members to inform them about upcoming workshops and events, with a specific focus on identifying issues related to environmental justice. Additionally, I coordinated meetings between HERCULES scientists, staff, and community partners, ensuring effective communication and collaboration.  

Another significant aspect of my work involved summarizing complex research findings into community-accessible language. This involved translating scientific information into terms that the general public could easily understand. These summaries were then shared at the Atlanta Science Festival and through online platforms, helping to disseminate important information on environmental justice to a broader audience. Furthermore, I contributed to the development and review of center documents pertaining to the grant program, ensuring that they provided guidance and support for other organizations interested in engaging with environmental justice activities. My time with the CEC was foundational to me evolving my interests in environmental health to include environmental justice and community based participatory research. I learned so much about these topics through my job and am looking forward to carrying these perspectives and experiences throughout my future roles. I’ve enjoyed the active role I have been able to have with the CEC and felt like I truly made a difference through our work. 

Atiya Page

During my second year as an MPH Environmental Health student, I had the opportunity work to with Dr. Christine Ekenga’s lab on the Southwest Atlanta community mapping study where the research approach focused on community assets. A lot of environmental health research involves a deficits approach that focuses on identifying problems within communities, but we wanted to focus on community assets that were available to promote public health. The purpose of our work in Southwest Atlanta was to identify assets that were useful and helpful that people within the community could utilize. A set of categories were developed for the assets to fall under: education, employment, environmental, faith, financial, food, health, housing, mental health, and transportation. I assisted in researching different resources for each topic within certain neighborhoods and then created maps that included each resource.

This project also included focus groups with members of the community to determine what they viewed as assets and if they knew of places that provided services that could assist the community. What we gathered from these sessions were that community members had difficulty naming physical places to receive services. Of the places that they did know of, the steps to receive the assistance available were not well known. Information from the focus groups expanded what we should search for in each category, and promoted the next phase of the study to confirm if the organizations that were identified would be useful and considered “community assets.” I assisted in contacting the organizations to find out if they were functioning at the capacity the community needs and what were the requirements and steps needed for someone to take part in their services.

This information we learned helped in planning the community mobile mapping project as we now understand what assets that need to be accounted for in a mobile study. We used this data to inform the development of mobile Ecological Momentary Assessments (EMAs). A purpose of these mobile EMAs will be to study people’s behavior and utilization of community-based assets in their daily lives. I assisted in the creation of these EMAs using REDCap by helping to design and develop programming specifications.

The research experience I gained this past year from working on this project has increased my skills in community involvement and engagement. This opportunity has been meaningful and rewarding which I will carry with me in my future career.   

McKenzi Thompson

While at Rollins School of Public Health, I had the pleasure of working as a graduate research assistant in Dr. Stephanie Eick‘s lab in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health. Investigating the correlation between prenatal exposure to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (HDP) in the Atlanta African American Maternal-Child Cohort was valuable to my learning experience. I had the privilege of starting this research during the fall of my first semester and was fortunate enough to remain on the lab team until my last semester. During this two-year span, I gained valuable R coding experience that proved incredibly beneficial for the classes I took and other data analyst projects.

It was a privilege for me, as a Black woman, to conduct research and focus my thesis on investigating the associations between PFAS exposure and HDP among Black women, who are at a higher risk of HDP and are also disproportionately exposed to various social factors that may further impact their health. I felt honored to work on this project and contribute to my community with my findings. The financial support from the Emory P30 HERCULES center was crucial in enabling me to gain R coding experience, focus on a research topic that directly aligns with my career interests, and find a wonderful mentor who provided me with invaluable support throughout my master’s degree.

In the future, I hope to continue conducting research that addresses health disparities and promotes health equity. I am grateful for the opportunities and support that I received during my time at Rollins and excited to apply the skills and knowledge I gained to my future endeavors.

Jessica Varnell

This past year, I have gotten to work with Dr. Emily Allen on research relating to fragile X conditions, specifically premature ovarian insufficiency. My primary role was to analyze data relating to metabolic pathways of interest using R and Python. I have a background in public health and epidemiology and I am currently working toward a Master of Science in Public Health degree here at Emory in the Rollins School of Public Health. I came into the project with minimal experience and knowledge relating to genetics. However, I now feel very comfortable working with genetics data and felt this project has been invaluable in allowing me to step out of my comfort zone in public health research. I was able to further develop my R skills and even learn how to code in Python.

Dr. Allen works with fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that can impact development, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. Some people have a fragile X “premutation”, meaning they have a certain number of CGG repeats on the FMR1+ gene and can potentially be carriers for fragile X. Women with a fragile X permutation are at risk for fragile X-associated premature ovarian insufficiency (FXPOI). I used my background in data analytics to map significant pathways of interest among women with FXPOI and comorbid depression and anxiety to elucidate why some women with the premutation develop symptoms that are associated with fragile X and some do not. This research is ongoing and I am lucky to work with such an amazing and intelligent team! I have learned so much about the evolving field of public health research, genetics, and statistical programming through this experience.

Marisa Wong 

This past academic year, I have had the opportunity to serve as an Evaluation Research Assistant in the HERCULES Exposome Research Center. In this role, I worked with the Center Evaluator and Center Administrator to both strategize and report on the Center’s metrics. These metrics were then provided to the NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) as part of the Research Performance Progress Reports and supported the justification for continued funding for HERCULES. I also helped transform the evaluation data collection from a simple, five-column spreadsheet to a complex Smartsheet workspace capable of collecting data via forms, configuring automation, displaying dashboards, and running reports. This work benefits both the future HERCULES evaluation teams and the Core leads who enter project details.  

In addition to evaluating on the services that HERCULES provides to its members, I assessed the HERCULES Roadshow and Grant Program from the Community Engagement Core (CEC) through document review of grant applications and facilitation of grantee focus groups and interviews. This opportunity has strengthened my ability to perform qualitative assessments and has introduced me to the world of program evaluation, both of which I would not have had the chance to pursue through my coursework. I am glad to have contributed the substantial work that the HERCULES Exposome Research Center provides to the field of environmental health research.