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Summers of Discovery ends with module on air pollution

By Melissa Kerr
September 2010

Cynthia Holley, Ph.D.
Holley, shown at the podium, was also an instructor earlier in the series (see story( (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Amy Abdulovic, Ph.D.
Abdulovic was chair of the committee of postdocs who set about redesigning the summer training last fall. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jana Stone, Ph.D.
Like other members of the committee, Stone helped with exercises at earlier sessions in the series. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Michelle Sever
Sever was able to offer students specific examples of NIEHS air pollution research and its relevance to public health issues. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Summers of Discovery (SOD) program concluded its redesigned lecture series July 27 with an interactive session on air pollution, presented by three NIEHS postdoctoral fellows and an NIEHS laboratory biologist. It was the final module in a series of four crafted by a special committee of postdoctoral fellows (see related story (

The series is a collaboration between organizers Diane Klotz, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development (, and Debbie Wilson, coordinator of the Summers of Discovery ( and Special Programs, who served as facilitator at each of the seminars.

In this concluding module, postdoctoral fellows Jana Stone, Ph.D., Amy Abdulovic, Ph.D., and Cynthia Holley, Ph.D., worked with Michelle Sever, a biologist in the NIEHS Laboratory of Respiratory Biology, to teach students about the sources and potential health effects of inhalation exposure to particles and gases. The four scientists split the session into presentations about different aspects of air pollution, interspersed with table activities and discussions to enrich the learning experience.

Environmental exposure and indoor air quality

Stone opened the session by discussing both man-made and natural sources of air pollution. She explained what the Air Quality Index represents and how to reduce the effects of exposure. Staying inside, she pointed out, does not eliminate exposure because indoor air pollution can also be an issue. Stone asked students to look at several filter papers that were on the tables where they were sitting. The papers had been slathered in Vaseline and set at various places in the community at various times during the spring. The students identified pollen, cat hair, and road construction dust.

In response to earlier SOD lecture student comments asking for more details from specific research, Sever ( described an investigation dealing with the German cockroach and how a person's exposure to the allergen-producing cockroach could correlate with occurrences of asthma. The study followed ways to rid a household of cockroach infestation, including different methods of extermination, cleaning, and household education. She said that clearing the living space of cockroaches would clear the air of the allergen, but the study also found that simple extermination alone wasn't enough. A much more focused and thorough approach was necessary for a long-term solution.

Large-scale events lead to government regulation and policy

Next to take the podium was Abdulovic, who spoke on gaseous air pollution. The start of government involvement in relation to air pollution began following the Great London Smog of 1952. The acceleration of illness and death due to the smog prompted Parliament to take action in the form of research, thereby leading to the Clean Air Act of 1956. Turning the lecture toward more current issues, Abdulovic enlightened the students about both protective and harmful effects of ozone. She concluded with a visual demonstration of the amount of carbon dioxide a car releases into the atmosphere during a year.

Holley brought the session to its close by raising issues of air pollution and public policy. She gave a brief history on the relationship between the U.S. government and pollution issues. She said the Clean Air Act of 1963 was the first federal regulation enacted by Congress to control air pollution on a national level. The establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came in 1970, followed by an increase in funding for programs and research. Holley closed with an exercise challenging the students to develop catchy slogans about air pollution. NIEHS fellows voted on the slogans by email and selected "Drive less, breathe more!" due to the simplicity of the message.

(Melissa Kerr studies chemistry at North Carolina Central University. She is currently an intern in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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