Student Research Experiences – Spring 2020

Multigenerational Study of PBB Exposure

Leah Moubadder

During my time as an MPH student in the Epidemiology department, I was fortunate to work with the PBB Registry, led by Dr. Michele Marcus, in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. The registry was developed in the 1970s following the accidental contamination of livestock feed by polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) – a brominated flame retardant. The feed was disseminated to farms across Michigan and, as a result, Michigan citizens were unknowingly exposed to PBB through the consumption of contaminated food products until the mishap was discovered about one year later. In 2011, Emory University acquired the registry and it was placed under the direction of Dr. Marcus. Through community-engaged research, the PBB Registry continues to study the long-term health effects of PBB exposure and host annual fieldwork events with affected communities.

My work was primarily focused on the multi-generational study examining the heritability of epigenetic markers associated with paternal PBB exposure. Given the complex requirements for family eligibility – a PBB exposed grandfather and two subsequent unexposed generations – a significant amount of my effort was spent recruiting and screening participants. As such, I had the opportunity to travel to Michigan on two occasions with the PBB team where I participated in multiple fieldwork events and gained experience in a variety of valuable public health skills. Some of my responsibilities included: consenting participants for research activities, developing and administering screening questionnaires, processing participant’s biological specimens, and effectively communicating our current and prior research to the lay community. Outside of fieldwork for the multigenerational study, I maintained the data for the study and worked on ways to improve the prediction of PBB exposure. Lastly, I was able to develop a method to utilize the registry’s health research interest form – a questionnaire that can be completed by those who are interested in participating in research and has over 2,000 entries – to recruit and screen individuals for current research activities.

My involvement at the PBB registry aided in my training in community engagement, data management, study design, and exposure assessment, all of which are extremely important for a public health graduate student, and made for a robust and memorable research experience.

Planning the Southeast Environmental Justice Conference

Ashley James

During my first year in the Environmental Health MPH program, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Melissa Smarr as an Environmental Justice Support Specialist. Through this role, I served as a member on a dynamic steering committee, which consisted of leaders working in the Environmental Health and/or Environmental Justice field. Our task was to plan Emory University’s first large scale environmental justice conference. I learned many things during our weekly planning meetings. I learned all of the intricate details involved in planning a conference, as well as the benefits and challenges of academic and community partnerships. I also learned how to effectively perform administrative tasks such as taking efficient meeting notes. These notes were not only to assist with conference planning, but for a future write up on the challenges and successes of academic and community partnerships for environmental health and environmental justice efforts. In addition to the steering committee, I sat on the student advisory council (SAC), which is a group of graduate and undergraduate students that plan student involvement in the conference. My other tasks in this role involved preparing various materials (e.g., agenda, program, speaker bios) for the conference and helping Dr. Smarr brainstorm logistics. A key component to this position was to assist with the communication of public health and environmental justice information to various communities in Georgia and throughout the Southeast. This included participating in meetings to develop content for the conference website and materials to publicize the conference among various audiences. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the conference date has been postponed indefinitely. However, I look forward to the day we can set a new date and see all of the hard work come to life for an amazing conference. Future tasks will include administering a post-conference survey that I developed and helping create a database with the research interests of community organizations and academics to foster partnerships.

Tree Plots Function Generation and Housing Data Analysis of RPMS

Haoran Liu

During my time as a second year MSPH student in the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Department, I worked with Professor Matthew Gribble’s research team from the Environmental Health Department. My first objective was to design an R function on the tree plot generated from the Recursive Partitioning for Modeling Survey Data (RPMS) function. The RPMS function is a representation of a regression tree achieved by recursively partitioning the dataset, fitting the specified linear model on each node separately. As a student in biostatistics, I handle R programming a lot and this project gave me the chance to perform my skills and provided me with good experience on creating new things.

Another project was to use the RPMS function to analyze housing information in collaboration with Dr. Gregory Pierce from UCLA. This project was intended to analyze the factors of the house (e.g., size of lot, number of people, ethnicity of inhabitants) on influencing the annual expenditure on utility services, drinking and wastewater services, natural gas services, and electricity services. The last project was to generate a diamond plot function to show the correlation between different groups or parameters.

The past year working with Dr. Gribble was a great experience for me to learn new things by myself and to use knowledge learned from class. Moreover, Dr. Gribble helped me a lot on both projects and thoughts on research, which was of great help for my future career.

Community-Engaged Investigation of Heavy Metal Soil Contamination and its Effects on Residents in West Atlanta

Elena Jordanov

This past year, I had the privilege to work with Dr. Eri Saikawa and leaders in the Saikawa Lab to investigate heavy metal soil contamination in West Atlanta.  The project has been community-based since inception. I was a part of the growing partnership between the Saikawa Lab and the Historic Westside Gardens, which is a community-based organization that promotes local, accessible farming in efforts to combat the extensive food desert in the area.  What began as a project to ensure community and residential gardens were safe to grow food has now become a community-wide effort to ensure the general safety of all residents in Atlanta from lead contamination in the soil.  The EPA began excavation of native contaminated soil in English Avenue earlier this year.

In order to ensure that all residents who live in the English Avenue/Vine City area are well informed on the EPA excavation and their access to free soil testing, we have been involved with town hall meetings and outreach events.  I assisted in the development of a door-to-door script for Saikawa Lab members and Historic Westside Garden employees to follow as we walked to houses in English Avenue to talk about the EPA activity in the area.  Our goal was to not only inform but also to hear residents’ concerns over their health and their property.  I also helped create a monthly MailChimp newsletter to inform all interested on the status of the ATL Soil Safety Project, including outreach resources as well as the Saikawa Lab’s research projects.

The Saikawa Lab’s research activities have been at the forefront of my HERCULES research experience.  I have helped improve the overall organization of the Saikawa Lab’s research projects by setting up a lab Slack account with channels for each sub-project, such as community outreach and soil phytoremediation.  I also improved the organization of our soil and plant samples by creating a sample inventory sheet, which tracks: (1) samples that need to be sieved/crushed; (2) samples that need to be analyzed by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) or inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS); and (3) samples that have been analyzed. I directly contributed to our research projects through: (1) XRF analysis of soil samples, (2) plant crushing, (3) recruitment of children’s toe nails to inform a child’s exposure to multiple heavy metals, (4) risk assessment development utilizing the EPA Integrated Exposure Uptake Biokinetic Model for Lead in Children (IEUBK) Software, and (5) on-boarding new members.  Overall, I am incredibly thankful to have been a part of such an amazing team and to have been given the opportunity to contribute to such imperative community-driven public health research.  This research experience has defined my Rollins career.