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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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NIEHS Post-Doctoral Fellow Looks Home to Nepal for Her Research Motivations

By Paula T. Whitacre

Shristi Shrestha, Ph.D.

NIEHS post-doctoral fellow Shristi Shrestha, Ph.D.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Srishti Shrestha, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in the NIEHS Chronic Disease Epidemiology Branch, came to her research focus because of what she saw in her home country of Nepal.

“Nepal’s economy depends on agriculture that uses pesticides,” she said. “But because of limited resources, there is very little environmental health research.” Her long-term goal is to apply the knowledge she gains through NIEHS and other research to further environmental health in Nepal.

Shrestha grew up in Kathmandu where her mother taught science. To ensure her hands-on experiments would work with her students, she practiced with Shrestha and her brother and sister. In addition, “Science came easy to me in school,” Shrestha recalled. She studied pharmacy at Kathmandu University and worked for three years within pharmaceutical companies.

Although she always planned to attend graduate school, Shrestha’s interest changed. She came to feel she could better help her country through public health rather than with a pharmaceutical degree.

“I saw health problems in Nepal that could be easily prevented,” she said. “I thought if I could work in public health, I could have a meaningful impact on more people.”

Shrestha explains her transition from a Nepalese workplace to a U.S. master’s program matter-of-factly, but she made a big transition. In 2007, she entered the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. There, she expanded her studies to epidemiology.

Her interest in understanding how chemicals affect human health, especially brain functions, led her to the University at Albany for doctoral studies, where she joined the group of Edward Fitzgerald, Ph.D. The university’s affiliation with the New York State Department of Health also provided, she said, a “good, hands-on public health experience.” She became involved in studies assessing neuropsychological effects of several persistent organic pollutants. For her doctoral dissertation, she assessed associations between perfluoroalkyls substances and thyroid hormones and neuropsychological outcomes in older adults in upstate New York.

As an NIEHS post-doctoral fellow, she spent her first 18 months in the neuroepidemiology group of Honglei Chen, Ph.D. When Chen left for an academic appointment, Shrestha began work under Dale Sandler, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch.

“[Shrestha’s] research under Dr. Chen focused on neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, both etiology and disease progression,” said Sandler. “She joined my group when Dr. Chen left and has been carrying out research on the role of pesticides in the etiology of thyroid diseases, while continuing to support a collaboration between our group and Dr. Chen.”

“She brought a special interest in the contribution of environmental contaminants and carried out research on the role of pesticides using data from the Agricultural Health Study. In an effort to improve our ability to fully explore the role of chemical mixtures and better utilize the complex data from the study, Shrestha has reached out to other colleagues and the literature to bring new statistical methods to our work,” Sandler added.

“Understanding health effects of pesticides is important because pesticides are extensively used in both developing and developed countries,” Shrestha said. “Many people may be exposed directly from occupational use or indirectly from environmental sources.” Shrestha has coauthored many publications on these and related topics.

Shrestha has found NIEHS to be a good fit for her career and scientific interests. “The research environment is good, with supportive career development,” she said. As she heads into her 4th year at NIEHS, Shrestha is exploring opportunities to further her research and ultimately build the knowledge base and improve health in Nepal.

“Training at NIEHS gives Dr. Shrestha and others like her the building blocks to carry out high-quality research that is relevant to or carried out in their country of origin,” Sandler said. “We are hopeful her experience will lead to a position [where she can] carry out research in Nepal or nearby countries so she can begin to develop studies in her home country.”