Stories of Success
NIEHS-funded scientists work in a variety of disciplines, performing groundbreaking research into how the environment influences the development and progression of disease. Through these Stories of Success we invite you to explore the people behind the research in stories that you won't find in a scientific journal. Read about NIEHS grantees who are developing new technologies to better measure environmental exposures and their effects on our body; partnering with communities to help them understand the effects of pollution; and cultivating tomorrow's environmental health scientists.
Featured DERT Success Stories
Somshuvra Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D.
Pharmacologist Somshuvra Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., from the University of Texas at Austin, is working to understand the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to parkinsonism, which causes Parkinson’s disease-like movement problems. By providing important insights into the biological processes involved in the condition, Mukhopadhyay’s research might one day inform the development of new drugs that help people with parkinsonism.
Mary Lou Guerinot, Ph.D.
Research by NIEHS grantee Mary Lou Guerinot, Ph.D., is answering important questions about how plants absorb metals from the soil. She is identifying plant genes responsible for uptake of toxic metals such as arsenic, as well as iron and other nutrients, with the goal of making rice and other edible plants safer and more nutritious.
Andrea Baccarelli, M.D., Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Andrea Baccarelli, M.D., Ph.D., studies epigenetic changes, which affect the way genes are expressed without directly changing the genetic code in DNA. Baccarelli's career experiences have led him to become a pioneer in environmental health and epigenetics research. Furthermore, his research continues to provide a greater understanding on how epigenetic changes may be leveraged to prevent certain diseases following exposure to pollutants.
Elizabeth Harman, a former career firefighter and paramedic in Fairfax City, VA, has a passion for protecting first responders from hazards while on the job. At age 16, Harman began volunteering in the field, eager to get engaged in her community and help people. Now, Harman is the assistant to the general president for the Grants Administration & Hazardous Materials Training Department at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
Bruce Hammock, Ph.D.
Renowned scientist and NIEHS grantee Bruce Hammock, Ph.D., has made groundbreaking discoveries in biology and biochemistry that have implications for improving the health of both humans and the environment. Originally trained as an insect developmental biologist, Hammock has since expanded his research into developing safe therapeutics for humans and animals, as well as developing tools to monitor exposure to environmental contaminants.
Habibul Ahsan, M.D.
For the last 20 years, NIEHS grantee Habibul Ahsan, M.D., has been studying the role our environment plays in human disease. A physician by trade, Ahsan recalls a groundbreaking article in the New York Times that implicated arsenic-contaminated drinking water with skin diseases in Bangladesh and parts of India. Originally from Bangladesh himself, Ahsan became passionate about studying global environmental health.
Alexander Isakov, M.D.
In 2014, NIEHS grantee Alexander Isakov, M.D., played an instrumental role in transporting and caring for two American aid workers who had been infected with Ebola virus disease, which is highly infectious and can be fatal if untreated. Due to the efforts of his team, both patients fully recovered. Furthermore, Isakov and his team ensured that the Ebola virus did not spread, making certain that healthcare staff, visitors, and other patients were protected from contracting the disease.
Janine LaSalle, Ph.D.
Today, a definitive autism diagnosis typically isn’t possible until age 3. However, if children at high risk could be identified sooner, they might be eligible for early behavioral therapies that could improve their quality of life. Research conducted by NIEHS grantee Janine LaSalle, Ph.D., a professor at University of California, Davis, could one day make such early interventions possible.
Robert (Bob) O. Wright, M.D.
Pediatrician, medical toxicologist, and environmental epidemiologist Robert O. Wright, M.D., studies how children's health is affected by the exposome. The exposome encompasses the totality of exposure to chemicals, diet, and social stressors from conception to death, and how such exposures impact human health during various life stages.
Brad A. Racette, M.D.
NIEHS grantee and neurologist Brad Racette, M.D., has long been interested in movement disorders, specifically Parkinson’s disease (PD). His career has been largely influenced by personal experiences in the clinic, as well as in the field of epidemiological research.
Using Community-Engaged Research to Study the Health Impacts of Poor Air Quality in Rural Agricultural Communities
Catherine Karr, M.D., Ph.D.
Catherine Karr, M.D., Ph.D., was recently named as a recipient of the 2017 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award, which is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to early career scientists and engineers. The award recognizes commitment to scientific leadership, public education, and community-engaged research. Karr was nominated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for her community-engaged research approach focused on environmental allergens and children’s respiratory health in rural populations.
Lauren Aleksunes, Pharm.D., Ph.D., D.A.B.T.
During pregnancy, mother’s-to-be have heightened awareness and concern about their exposure to environmental chemicals and use of pharmaceutical drugs. Mounting evidence suggests pregnancy is a crucial window of susceptibility, presenting the possibility of lifelong impacts for expectant mothers, their children, and future generations.
Virginia Rauh, Sc.D.
Virginia Rauh, Sc.D., and her colleagues at the NIEHS/EPA-funded Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health have been following a group of children for 18 years to better understand how the ambient air environment influences children’s health. Their research has revealed important insights into how prenatal exposures can affect the brain and neurodevelopment throughout childhood and, potentially, into later life.
Karletta Chief, Ph.D.
When news of the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill reached the Navajo Nation, Karletta Chief, Ph.D., was presenting her work on the environmental impacts of mining and climate change to the Navajo Nation president and other leaders. She immediately began fielding questions from the Navajo community and wasted no time in working with her colleagues at the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP), federal agencies, and community members to develop a list of research questions that would help provide scientific answers to the community’s questions about the spill.
Bernhard Hennig, Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Bernhard Hennig, Ph.D., is at the forefront of research that studies the link between diet and exposure to environmental stressors. He uses his expertise in biochemistry to understand how good nutrition can counteract the negative health effects of exposure to harmful chemicals.
Scientists Develop and Explore Utility of an Innovative Three-Dimensional Tissue Model to Assess Reproductive Toxicity of Chemicals and Pharmaceutical Drugs
Teresa Woodruff, Ph.D.
Historically, a large portion of biomedical research has been conducted using only male animals or ignored the issue of sex completely. To address this issue, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a policy requiring the balance of sex in animal studies for preclinical, biomedical research.
CHAMACOS Youth Community Council: Latino Youth Work with Investigators to Facilitate Community-Based Environmental Health Research Projects
Kim Harley, Ph.D.
Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is a collaborative approach that involves all stakeholders – community members, organizational representatives, and researchers – as equal participants in the research process. This collaborative process is a significant component of environmental health research, and provides a means to identify topics and issues of interest to community members, collect data efficiently, translate research findings, and inform decision-making for regulatory programs and policies.
NIEHS Grantee Uses Novel Technique to Identify Early Targets of Oxidative Stress Induced by Engineered Nanomaterials
Brian Thrall, Ph.D
The use of engineered nanomaterials (ENM) in biomedicine, consumer products, food packaging, and energy, has increased drastically in recent years; in fact, the number of ENM products on the market is projected to double every three years. Although these advances are poised to significantly improve energy efficiency and human health, the increasingly widespread use of ENM technologies has raised concerns among decision makers and the general public.
Michigan State University – Sandra Haslam, Ph.D. and Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
Recent statistics from the American Cancer Society report that roughly 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop a form of invasive breast cancer in their lifetime, and approximately 40,000 women will die from breast cancer.
University of Cincinnati – Erin Hayes, Dr.P.H. and Ian Papautsky, Ph.D.
Conventional methods for measuring heavy metal exposure in humans are often expensive, resource intensive, and time-consuming. A portable, point-of-care sensor developed by NIEHS grantees, Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H., and Ian Papautsky, Ph.D., at the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) Center for Environmental Genetics, may enable a faster, more cost-effective assessment of toxic heavy metals in blood.
James (Jim) S. Frederick, Steelworkers' Mazzocchi Center
Jim Frederick's career is dedicated to helping workers protect themselves from hazards on the job. As a child growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, he witnessed first-hand why protecting workers from chemical and physical exposures is critically important.
Walt Klimecki, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Walt Klimecki, D.V.M., Ph.D., is using his expertise in genetics and toxicology to study how arsenic exposure causes disease. His work has revealed new information about how inherited genetic and other person-to-person differences can affect the way the body processes arsenic, which in turn influences the likelihood of a person developing a disease because of arsenic exposure.
Bevin Engelward, Sc.D.
A device called the CometChip greatly improves the quality and speed of DNA repair analysis. Designed by NIEHS grantee Bevin Engelward, Sc.D., from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this device allows the discovery of subtle differences in DNA repair capacity among individuals, as well as advances in basic research. It soon will be commercially available from biotechnology company Trevigen.
NIEHS Grantees Establish Working Group to Weigh the Potential Public Health Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing
Trevor Penning, Ph.D.
Using supplemental funds from NIEHS, members of the Working Group on Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling Operations are conducting several pilot projects aimed at examining the environmental health impacts of UNGDO. Data from these pilot projects could be used to launch collaborative research projects with a focus on environmental epidemiology in at-risk populations.
Aimin Chen, Ph.D., M.D.
NIEHS grantee Aimin Chen, Ph.D., M.D., studies how prenatal and early childhood chemical exposures affect brain development in children. Chen, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, published findings showing that prenatal exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) from flame retardants is associated with lower IQ and more hyperactive behaviors in children.
Jay James, Ph.D.
Jay James, Ph.D., launched a start-up company, Picoyune, in 2012 to commercialize a portable mercury detector that he helped develop as an NIEHS Superfund Research Program trainee. The reliable and easy-to-use mercury detector can replace the complex laboratory equipment typically used to analyze samples from contaminated sites. It also allows on-site analysis.
J. Glenn Morris, Jr., M.D.
J. Glenn Morris, Jr., M.D., leads the University of Florida (UF) component of the NIEHS-funded Deepwater Horizon Research Consortia. He and his collaborators have spent the last four years assessing the oil spill's effects on the Gulf coastline of Florida and Alabama. The UF findings highlight the substantial, long-term, public health impact of this major environmental disaster on coastal communities and people.
Small Business Offers Innovative, Sustainable Methods of Rodent and Pest Control to Improve Human Health
Loretta Mayer, Ph.D.
As the global population and cities continue to grow, so do challenges in environmental control and management of chemical, physical, and biological factors that impact human health. For example, rodents present major public health issues in that they reduce the quality of life, destroy agricultural crops, and contaminate resources in protein production facilities. They also present a major burden as carriers of serious and often life-threatening disease agents that can be transmitted to humans. SenesTech is an innovative animal health company that offers novel, humane strategies to manage rodent and pest populations by targeting their ability to reproduce.
Verónica Vieira, Sc.D.
Environmental epidemiologist Verónica Vieira, Sc.D., uses advanced modeling tools to examine how environmental exposures and disease risk change over space, or location, and time. Her methods and modeling expertise have contributed to a number of national and international environmental epidemiological studies examining risk of autism, birth defects, cancer, and other adverse health outcomes.
Carolyn Mattingly, Ph.D.
Carolyn Mattingly, Ph.D., and her team have been working for over a decade to develop and expand the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database (CTD), a centralized, publicly available resource that systematically integrates the data needed to make connections between chemical mechanisms of action and potential impacts on human health.
Gary Patti, Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Gary Patti, Ph.D., is developing a new technology that could make it much easier and faster to acquire and interpret metabolomics data. Metabolomics — the analysis of metabolites found in the body — can reveal patterns of metabolic changes linked with environmental disorders or diseases.
Roger Peng, Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Roger Peng, Ph.D., serves as co-director of the data management and statistics core for the NIEHS Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. As an environmental biostatistician, he recognizes the importance of developing statistical methods and using data science skills to address environmental health issues.
Manish Arora, Ph.D.
Great challenges persist in valid assessment of exposures that occur during the prenatal period and early childhood. For example, chemicals measured in a pregnant woman's blood do not always accurately reflect fetal exposure. Environmental epidemiologist and dentist Manish Arora, Ph.D., from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, recognizes the promising value of using teeth as exposure biomarkers to overcome these challenges.
Frank Gilliland, M.D., Ph.D.
Environmental and preventive medicine specialist Frank Gilliland, M.D., Ph.D., is director of the NIEHS Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, where he leads investigations on air pollution research, gene-environment interactions, respiratory health, and cancer epidemiology.
Jianghong Liu, Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Jianghong Liu, Ph.D., is working to understand how early exposure to lead can affect a child’s brain in a way that leads to emotional and behavioral problems.
The Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) is co-funded by NIEHS and the National Cancer Institute and supports multidisciplinary scientists, clinicians, and community partners who study environmental exposures that could predispose women to breast cancer.
Gokhan Mutlu, M.D.
Pulmonologist Gokhan Mutlu, M.D., has a longstanding interest in investigating how air pollution causes harm to the lungs and triggers life threatening cardiovascular issues, such as blood clots. His research could lead to new therapies for preventing cardiovascular problems related to air pollution.
Joann B. Sweasy, Ph.D.
Joann B. Sweasy, Ph.D., is internationally recognized for her expertise in DNA repair and cancer biology. Her surprising discovery of a link between a DNA repair gene variant and lupus led to the development of a mouse model for lupus that could help researchers understand how environmental factors affect risk for the disease.
Young-Shin Kim, Ph.D.
Young-Shin Kim, Ph.D., wants to understand why autism prevalence is increasing by studying the role of environmental risks and gene-environment interactions.
Philippe Grandjean, M.D.
NIEHS grantee Philippe Grandjean, M.D., published one of the first studies to link childhood exposure to perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) with immune system deficiency.
Beate Ritz, M.D., Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Beate Ritz, M.D., Ph.D., uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to study links between pesticide exposure and risk for Parkinson’s disease.
Tyler Beach spent a summer conducting environmental health research at the University of Rochester thanks to support from an NIEHS administrative supplement grant. He can draw upon this summer research experience when teaching science at Greece Athena High School in Rochester, N.Y.
James Hoerter, Ph.D.
James Hoerter, Ph.D., is working to understand the causes of melanoma, a type of skin cancer that claims around 8,000 lives each year in the United States. He is funded through an NIEHS Academic Enhancement Research Award (AREA), a program designed to support small-scale research projects at institutions where primary focus is undergraduates.
Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D.
Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D., investigates sensory neuron ion channels called transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. The ion channel is found in large numbers in the eyes, where it causes tears, as well as in the throat and larynx, where it initiates the coughing reflex.His early research linked these channels to pain sensing, and more recently he found that the channels are also responsible for the watery eyes and coughing reactions some people have when exposed to cigarette smoke and other environmental irritants. Understanding how TRP channels work could lead to new pain medicines, asthma therapies, and ways to counteract chemical warfare agents.
Patrick Ryan, Ph.D.
Patrick Ryan, Ph.D., is examining the impact of traffic-related pollutants on asthma in inner-city schools through a community-based research project called the Cincinnati Anti-Idling Campaign study. The study involves University of Cincinnati researchers partnering with the Cincinnati Health Department and the Cincinnati Public Schools to develop and implement an anti-idling campaign aimed at reducing children's exposure to traffic-related air pollution while traveling to and attending school.
Nongjian (NJ) Tao, Ph.D.
A wearable monitor developed by NIEHS grantee Nongjian (NJ) Tao, Ph.D., tracks and transmits real-time information on multiple air pollution components to which a person comes in contact. This personal exposure information can help researchers identify gene-environment interactions that lead to various health effects.