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NIEHS Doctoral Fellow Explores Air Pollution Impacts in Uganda

Mariana Surillo

Adaeze Wosu, Ph.D. candidate

Adaeze Wosu is a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and NIH Fogarty International Center fellow.
(Photo courtesy of Adaeze Wosu)

Adaeze Wosu, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) and an NIH Fogarty International Center (FIC) Fellow, is studying the links between solid fuel use (i.e., burning of materials such as wood or charcoal for domestic purposes) and cognitive development in Ugandan children. These fuels, commonly burned for cooking in Uganda, produce hazardous air pollutants.

While Wosu has a long-standing passion for public health, her interest in environmental health emerged within the last few years while working with faculty from JHSPH’s Department of International Health on a multi-country study exploring the use of mobile phones for collecting data on non-communicable disease risk factors. During visits to Kampala, Uganda, she was astonished by the high levels of air pollution. “I wasn’t working on air pollution at the time, but being in Kampala was a wakeup call. Walking through the city center, air pollution was quite intense. You could see a tinge in the air during high traffic hours. As I started to pay attention to different sources of air pollution, and speak with residents of Kampala, it became clear to me that in addition to vehicles on the street, the home environment was an important source of exposure to air pollutants. Many people cook with biomass at home. Imagine inhaling smoke from the burning of biomass, things like firewood or charcoal, for several hours every day, for years. I wondered about the effects of such exposure on health.” said Wosu.

car and scooter pollution
Fumes from a motorcycle, Kampala, Uganda (Photo from Daily Monitor)

Wosu combined her burgeoning interest in air quality with her long-held interest in early childhood development. As she read publications on air pollution, she soon identified a research gap— that much is yet to be understood about how air pollutants impact children’s cognitive development. A 2013 NIH publication, examining health risks and research priorities around household air pollution in low- and middle-income countries, further reinforced her interest in exploring this association for her dissertation.

Now a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, Wosu is in Uganda to conduct primary data collection for her dissertation research examining links between pollution from biomass burning and the cognitive development of children. “My NIH Fogarty fellowship, supported in part by NIEHS, has been crucial in this dissertation work, specifically in covering costs related to the objective measurement of environmental exposures. It has allowed me the opportunity to live in Uganda and immerse myself in daily life and research. This has enriched my perspectives—from the ethical, cultural, personal, and academic standpoints.”

Wosu, mentors, and colleagues at Makerere University Lung Institute
Wosu (front row, left) with mentors, and colleagues at Makerere University Lung Institute, Kampala, Uganda
(Photo courtesy of JHU Center for Global NCD Research and Training)

Wosu is mentored by a team of experienced air pollution researchers and exposure assessment experts including Bruce Kirenga, MBChB, M.Med., Director of the Makerere University Lung Institute, and William Checkley, M.D., Ph.D., of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Global Non-Communicable Disease Research and Training. Her overall Ph.D. research is overseen by her academic advisors, David Celentano, Sc.D., and Aruna Chandran, M.D., of JHSPH Department of Epidemiology. “My long-term interest is in applying epidemiologic methods to understanding how environmental and social factors impact health across the life course. I am happy to be able to investigate this research question, and to have supportive advisors, mentors, and colleagues. I have also benefitted from the network of current and former Fogarty fellows like Dr. Trishul Siddharthan”, Wosu said.

Adaeze Wosu, in front of a rural household kitchen in Eastern Uganda

Adaeze Wosu, in front of a rural household kitchen in Eastern Uganda.
(Photo courtesy of Adaeze Wosu)

Moving forward, Wosu wants to take appropriate actions to disseminate her research to different stakeholders, including policymakers, advocates for improved air quality, and, most importantly, community members. “My responsibilities are to disseminate the results to the scientific community, but just as important is to educate the public about air pollution, and ensure that policymakers are aware of our findings,” said Wosu. To achieve this, her dissemination plan includes working with researchers at Makerere University College of Health Sciences on a public engagement project.

Wosu is excited about the contributions she will make through her research over the long-term. “When I started my Ph.D., I could not have foreseen that I’d be in Uganda studying air pollution,” said Wosu. “I am excited to be in Uganda, and to go through the data collection process. I look forward to the new insights we will glean, what new questions will arise, and how our work can contribute toward improving air quality in the country.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits, and as Wosu states, “it’s important to recognize the potential that reducing air pollution has towards improving health across the life course.”