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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Your Environment. Your Health.

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Voices from the Field: Former NIEHS Fellow's Career Journey in Global Environmental Health

By Brittney Baumert

This month, Brittany Baumert, a former Intramural Research Training Award fellow, shares her research experiences in Chile and Thailand.

During my first trip to Thailand, I traveled with my research team nearly 200 kilometers of winding mountain roads from Chiang Mai and Fang (a northern district near the Myanmar border) to conduct site visits. It was the first year of my doctoral program and I could not have been more excited to see the place that would be the focus of much of the next four to five years. As we ventured further into the mountains, the twists and turns of the roads increased, and at each bend the mountainsides descended into lush valleys. I was amazed to see how many people could fit on a single motorbike as they raced up and down the mountains, including whole families—dad on front, mom hanging on to dad, sometimes with a toddler wedged between them or a baby strapped to its mother's back. None wore helmets as they zigged and zagged through traffic and oncoming cars.

I am now a third-year doctoral student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, working with Dana Boyd Barr, Ph.D., on the Study of Asian Women and Offspring’s Development and Environmental Exposures (SAWASDEE), which is jointly funded by NIEHS and the Fogarty International Center. SAWASDEE is focused on evaluating the relationship of exposure to organophosphate insecticides and effects on child neurodevelopment in a birth cohort developed in two regions of northern Thailand. The study also aims to foster capacity of Thai researchers, with an emphasis on establishing a community advisory board to provide input into each phase of the research process.

SAWASDEE team in Fang, Thailand

The SAWASDEE team visits a farmer in Fang, Thailand.
(Photo courtesy of Brittney Baumert)

Training and capacity building have been essential components of my own career successes. My mentors have made it a priority to share their knowledge across a range of skills, as well as to invest time and energy in listening to and advising me. This has empowered me to feel confident on my journey to becoming an environmental epidemiologist.

Early in my undergraduate career, I received training and guidance from Luke Naeher, Ph.D., a professor in the department of environmental health sciences at the University of Georgia, that altered my career trajectory. Naeher helped build the foundation of my career by creating a safe space for me to communicate my thoughts, concerns, and fears, and by encouraging me in areas about which I was passionate, including global environmental health. He also provided academic opportunities that strengthened my knowledge base, including the opportunity to work with his colleagues in Chile.

I spent a summer of my Master of Public Health program working on two separate environmental epidemiology projects in Chile. Verónica Iglesias, Ph.D., director of the School of Public Health at Universidad de Chile; María Teresa Muñoz-Quezada, Ph.D., director of postgraduates at Universidad Católica del Maule; and Boris Lucero, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Public Health at Universidad Católica del Maule, continued to shape my understanding of global environmental health. Working with them taught me about some of the many challenges involved with fieldwork and data collection. One project evaluated the relationship between occupational pesticide exposure in mothers and neurodevelopmental effects in their children. My experiences in Chile, working across borders with the goal of improving human health, solidified my desire to become an environmental epidemiologist.

Toward the end of my master’s program, I had the opportunity to work for Stephanie London, M.D., Ph.D., deputy chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. Not only did she teach me epidemiological methods and expose me to new research, but she also taught me about leadership and instilled in me a greater level of confidence, which helped guide me to my current doctoral program.

I have now traveled to Thailand four times in three years. I know the impact that capacity building and training can have on the scientific community—the future of our scientific research depends on it. I feel very grateful to have a career that enables me to explore so many of my passions, including improving human health and tackling global environmental concerns.