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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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NIEHS Fellow Advances Research on Early Life Exposures Around the Globe

By Mariana Surillo

portrait photo of Stephani Kim

Kim is an Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Perinatal and Early Life Epidemiology Group.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Stephani Kim, Ph.D., M.P.H., a postdoctoral fellow in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, has used her passion for global environmental health to work on research opportunities across the globe and focuses her career on understanding early life exposures in high-risk populations.

Kim’s interest in global environmental health was sparked at an early age. Growing up, Kim remembers seeing pictures from the devastating famines in North Korea occurring in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Being of Korean descent herself, Kim expressed the impact these pictures had on her when she was young. “These pictures made me step out of my suburban bubble and realize I wanted to help other people. As a kid I really didn’t know how I would pursue this, but it was a pivotal moment that led me toward the field of public health.”

Her passion to help others and interest in science led her to pursue a degree in biology from Drew University. She initially wanted to become a medical doctor, but during her time as an undergraduate student she discovered public health and decided to pursue an M.P.H. in environmental health sciences from The Ohio State University.

During her second year as an M.P.H. student, Kim took part in the Ghana Sustainable Change Program, a multidisciplinary research project investigating water access and quality in a rural district in Ghana. As Kim expressed during her presentation at NIEHS’ 2018 GEH Day, a unique aspect of this project was the opportunity for her to collaborate with a diverse team, including students outside the field of sciences, students from the university in Ghana, district officials, community members, and volunteers.

two women testing water samples
Kim, right, and colleague Keischa Irons, M.C.R.P., left, in Ghana testing water samples collected from the field.
(Photo courtesy of Stephani Kim)

After completing her M.P.H., Kim worked as a study coordinator for the E-waste Recycling Exposure and Community Health (e-REACH) study, led by NIEHS grantee and former NIEHS postdoctoral fellow Aimin Chen, M.D., Ph.D. Working for Chen led her to complete her Ph.D. in epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati, where she investigated the association between exposures to heavy metals from informal recycling electronic waste (e-waste) sites and adverse health outcomes in pregnant women and newborns in Guiyu, China. Located in southeast China, Guiyu was once considered “the e-waste capital of the world,” where informal e-waste recycling, involving open burning and acid baths, was common. Her e-waste work inspired her to continue investigating environmental exposure of heavy metals in pregnant women and fetal development.

posed photo of team of e-REACH investigators

e-REACH investigators in Cincinnati, March 2012.
(Photo courtesy of Stephani Kim)

bundle of electronic waste

Used electronics in Guiyu, China. (Photo taken by Aimin Chen in April 2011)
(Photo courtesy of Stephani Kim)

After graduating with her Ph.D., Kim came to NIEHS as a postdoctoral fellow, where she now works to develop her understanding of the effects of metal mixtures during pregnancy in relation to adverse birth outcomes within a U.S. population. “In the future, Kim may take this back to her global health work to understand mixtures in more highly exposed communities,” said Kelly Ferguson, Ph.D., M.P.H., who leads the Perinatal and Early Life Epidemiology Group at NIEHS and is Kim’s mentor during her NIEHS fellowship.

Kim is currently analyzing the data on how exposure to mixtures of heavy metals can affect pregnant women in the United States. Her work includes understanding preterm birth data and measures of fetal growth during pregnancy. Focusing on how a mother’s environment during pregnancy can affect the child’s development, adolescence, and adulthood is very important because “there are many chemicals that we know are harmful to human development at high doses, but we don’t always know what these chemicals can do at low doses in vulnerable populations, especially children,” said Kim.

Kim hopes her current research will help her advance her career in environmental epidemiology, including further research in highly exposed communities after a natural disaster. “During the aftermath of a natural disaster, our first concern tends to be the risk of diarrheal diseases and access to clean water, but after Hurricane Harvey we realized there are other concerns, such as chemical contamination. My interest is to analyze immediate and long-term exposures of chemicals in high-risk communities, such as those residents from Houston living near chemical factories,” said Kim.

Throughout her field work and in her current role as a postdoctoral fellow, Kim expressed how her professors and mentors have been an essential part of her experience. “Working at NIEHS, I’ve found the staff to be one of the most significant aspects of my fellowship. I have an amazing and supportive mentor, Dr. Ferguson, who connects me to people and opportunities to expand my knowledge, which I consider to be one of the most important aspects of a Ph.D. training,” Kim said.