Dana Haine – Mixing Research with Creativity to Appeal to Learners
March 12, 2020
Dana Haine works with researchers, K-12 teachers, and students to make the newest scientific research digestible for classrooms and communities. As the K-12 science education manager for the Center for Public Engagement with Science within the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, she delivers new and relevant environmental health research findings, such as the health effects of e-cigarettes and implications of climate change, to learners.
Her interest in science goes back to childhood, but it was while working toward a master’s degree in biology that she decided to pursue a career outside a laboratory. Following graduation, she began teaching biology at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her classes consisted mostly of non-majors, which inspired her to make the course content as relevant and engaging as possible.
“I knew that for many of my students, my biology course might be the only one they would ever take,” Haine said. “To make the course relevant and useful, I incorporated human health topics as much as possible. When we talked about the cell cycle, we talked about cancer. When we talked about the brain, we talked about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the nervous system.”
Bringing New Research into Classrooms and Communities
Today, Haine works within the Community Engagement Core (CEC) in the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility (CEHS), an NIEHS Environmental Health Science Core Center, to bring engaging environmental health science content to K-12 students and other learners.
Haine explained that she often sees a disconnect between K-12 curriculum standards and current research. This presents a challenge for science-minded students graduating from high school, as they may not be aware of the current scientific research and all of the opportunities available to them as undergraduate students.
As she became familiar with the work of CEHS scientists, Haine saw an opportunity to integrate their timely, cutting-edge research findings into learning modules for students.
“By connecting teachers with current research findings through development of classroom-ready activities, we play a valuable role not only in preparing the next generation of scientists but also in promoting their understanding of environmental health topics,” Haine said.
Haine’s work with CEHS has also involved creating lessons for members of the wider community such as public health professionals. In 2016, Haine collaborated with John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health, to update an interactive lesson plan about climate change and human health. The lesson has since been adapted for use with clinical and public health students and practitioners. Most recently, Haine developed an online training module for public health professionals titled Extreme Heat & Air Quality: Implications for Human Health that will be released this spring.
Bringing the Science of E-cigarettes to K-12 Students
Haine found relevant, timely material for one of her latest projects by listening to a talk on the health effects of e-cigarette liquids and aerosols, given by Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D., research director for cardiopulmonary disease at CEHS.
“She was a very dynamic and engaging speaker, and she was passionate about taking her research to K-12 audiences,” Haine said. “She talked about how teenagers start to vape because of the appealing flavors but often have no idea those flavors contain addictive nicotine and that the flavors themselves may be harmful.”
Haine teamed up with Jaspers, connecting the researcher with middle and high schools for speaking engagements. At these events, Haine paid attention to questions raised by students and teachers. This exploratory process revealed young people’s misconceptions about vaping and guided Haine in the creation of a high school lesson on the topic.
To create the lesson, Haine turned to Jasper’s recent research papers and to Elise Hickman, one of Jasper’s doctoral students. Together, they created a two-part lesson plan, in which students examine experimental data showing how e-cigarette flavorings affect immune cells and how cinnamaldehyde, a flavoring, impacts cilia movement in the lungs by impairing mitochondrial function.
The lesson was piloted in three classrooms, two in North Carolina and one in Texas, in spring 2019. After some fine-tuning, Haine and Hickman modeled the lesson for teachers attending the North Carolina Science Teachers Association and the National Association of Biology Teachers annual meetings.
“One thing I really enjoy doing with my work, especially federally funded work, is disseminating it to teachers beyond North Carolina,” Haine said. “Conference presentations are a great avenue for disseminating lessons, especially national conferences because they often attract K-12, community college, and four-year college faculty.”
Engaging with Students Outside the Classroom
Haine also designs and delivers extracurricular STEM learning opportunities to students outside the classroom. From 2009-2017, she led the Climate Leadership and Energy Awareness (Climate LEAP), a year-long STEM program, where students learn about changing weather patterns and how human health may be affected.
In 2017, with supplemental funding from NIEHS, the UNC CEHS partnered with Columbia University’s Environmental Health Science Core Center and its community partner WE ACT to collaborate on informal youth programming that ultimately enabled Haine to introduce Climate LEAP participants to new topics such as climate resilience and climate justice.
“I’m working to create a better planet for our children,” Haine said. “The more I’ve learned as a result of my work, the more aware I’ve become of how the environment impacts our health, and I want to help people understand that connection.”
Haine looks forward to continuing her work with the NIEHS-funded CEHS, where she is able to approach research translation, lesson development, and outreach efforts with freedom and creativity.
Laurel Schaider, Ph.D. – On the Frontlines of PFAS Research
February 3, 2020
When Laurel Schaider, Ph.D., joined Silent Spring Institute in 2009, she began studying contaminants of emerging concern in public and private drinking water wells on Cape Cod. The region’s porous sandy soils allow surface pollutants to easily percolate through the ground, seep into wells, and contaminate drinking water. Silent Spring scientists wanted to know if pharmaceuticals and other chemicals from consumer products were making their way into well water. Among the chemicals they found were per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a complex class of manufactured chemicals. Since then, Schaider has focused her research on how PFAS move through the environment, how people can be exposed, and how they affect human health.
Widespread PFAS Contamination
In use since the 1950s, PFAS are found in many consumer products, from cosmetics and dental floss to tents and non-stick frying pans. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment. Exposure to PFAS is linked to a wide range of potential health effects, such as thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, low birth weight, decreased effectiveness of vaccines, and some types of cancer.
Because of these health concerns, EPA required large public water supplies in the U.S. to test for PFAS from 2013 to 2015. The testing showed that 6 million Americans were being served by public water supplies where PFAS exceeded EPA’s guideline. “That really got a lot of people’s attention,” said Schaider.
That 6 million figure was just the tip of the iceberg; current estimates put the number of Americans with PFAS in their drinking water at more than 100 million. People can be exposed to PFAS from other sources, such as crops grown in PFAS-contaminated soil; grease-resistant food wrappers, pizza boxes, and microwave popcorn bags; and stain-resistant carpeting.
As the lead investigator of Silent Spring’s PFAS-REACH (Research, Education, and Action for Community Health) project and the Community Engagement Core co-leader for the University of Rhode Island’s STEEP Superfund Research Program, Schaider has become a nationally recognized expert on PFAS.
Schaider and her team have studied the prevalence of PFAS chemicals in fast food packaging and the effects of dietary habits on PFAS exposures. For example, her research has found that people who eat more meals at home as opposed to eating out have lower levels of PFAS in their body, and people who eat more microwave popcorn have significantly higher PFAS levels. These results suggest that food packaging is an important source of exposure to PFAS.
As part of her work at Silent Spring, Schaider communicates PFAS research findings to communities involved in the studies.
“Part of our mission is to translate what we learn to improve people’s health and reduce their risk of disease,” said Schaider. “We provide information to consumers on how to reduce their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in their daily lives.”
Schaider does much of her research in partnership with community groups, including the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition, Testing for Pease, and Toxics Action Center. She first conducted research in a community setting when she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as part of an NIEHS-funded project at the Tar Creek Superfund Site in northeastern Oklahoma. She studied the environmental trail of contaminant metals like zinc, lead, and cadmium in the Tar Creek community.
The goal was to detect and characterize the presence of heavy metals from mine waste in Tar Creek and to examine how the metals migrated into neighboring yards and homes. Project leaders worked with a community organization, the LEAD (Local Environmental Action Demanded) Agency, to develop a study and conduct the research. This included measuring levels of exposure in the community and evaluating the effects of contamination on community health.
During this period, Schaider also led a project investigating mercury exposure from eating fish caught in Grand Lake, which is downstream of Tar Creek. This project also involved significant community participation. Local fishermen and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation provided the catch used for mercury analysis, residents of the Grand Lake area completed questionnaires about their fish consumption, and community advisors aided in study design and implementation.
“Community members have so much knowledge,” said Schaider. “It’s essential, especially for environmental public health research, to make sure we are capturing that knowledge and asking questions that community members really want answered so they can improve their health.”
Looking forward, Schaider is excited to start collaborating with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on a multi-site PFAS health study. The federal study is investigating communities across the country that have experienced PFAS contamination in their drinking water supply. Leading one of seven projects funded through the ATSDR study, Silent Spring researchers will be testing children and adults for a range of known PFAS chemicals and correlating PFAS exposures with different biological markers of health effects. The team will also be collecting new information about previously unidentified PFAS chemicals to which communities may have been exposed.