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Student Research

Student Research Impacts Public Health

Department of Environmental and Occupational Health students at the master’s, doctoral, and postdoctoral levels are actively involved in research that’s impacting public health locally, nationally, and internationally. The following are some of our outstanding student researchers.

Travis Bui-Klimke, graduate student researcher, focused on mycotoxins, or toxins produced by fungi that infect food crops and commodities and have adverse health effects in humans and animals. Specifically, his research involved (1) determining the risk of adverse health effects to those exposed to various mycotoxins, (2) using social network modeling to determine the impacts of aflatoxin standards on the trade of various commodities and the subsequent effect on human health, and (3) evaluating the cost of implementing mycotoxin regulations in different populations. Additionally, Bui-Klimke focused on aflatoxins, carcinogenic toxins produced by Aspergillus fungi, which contaminate maize, peanuts, and tree nuts in many regions of the world. Pistachios are the main contributor to dietary aflatoxin exposure from tree nuts. He and his team developed social network models to analyze the association between nations’ aflatoxin regulations and global trade patterns of pistachios from 1996 to 2010. Over this time period, which saw changes in aflatoxin regulations in pistachios, global pistachio trade patterns changed, with the United States increasingly exporting to countries with stricter aflatoxin standards. As these patterns have also been documented in maize, public health may be affected if countries without regulations, or with more relaxed regulations, continually import crops with higher aflatoxin contamination.

Predoctoral fellow Kyle J. Ferrar was involved with members of his research team in analyzing water from Pennsylvania treatment facilities that initially processed leftover fracking water from the nearby Marcellus Shale region. These facilities later complied with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s request to voluntarily stop processing the wastewater. The team took water samples from three facilities before and after they stopped processing the fracking waste. They then measured levels of chemicals found in the waste that typically aren’t present in other industrial wastewaters and found that concentrations dropped significantly after the plants stopped taking the fracking waste. When the plants still handled the waste, the team found that levels of several of the chemicals exceeded drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Chemical & Engineering News interviewed Ferrar and mentioned his team’s findings in a March 2013 article.
Read the Chemical & Engineering News article.

Postdoctoral fellow Nicholas Fitz, a member of associate professors Iliya Lefterov and Radosveta Koldamova’s lab, focused his doctoral research on the importance of the medial septal cholinergic tract and neurosteroids in the development of age-related cognitive deficits. Since arriving at Pitt, he has received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F32) from the National Institute on Aging for a project exploring the importance of the ABCA1 gene in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. He has also received foundation funding through the Alzheimer’s Art Quilt Initiative and University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer Disease Research Center to examine how high fat diets affect Alzheimer’s disease pathology. In addition, Fitz earned Best Presentation honors at the Third Annual Research Day on Aging, sponsored by the UPMC Aging Institute; a Young Investigator Scholarship through the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation; and a University of Pittsburgh Postdoctoral Association travel award.

PhD candidate Shilpi Oberoi is working on the World Health Organization (WHO)-funded project “Estimation of Global Burden of Disease due to Arsenic in Food” and recently coauthored the interim report for WHO’s Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) Chemicals and Toxins Taskforce with Professor Aaron Barchowsky and Associate Professor Felicia Wu. She presented the team’s findings at the Fifth Annual FERG Stakeholder Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in April 2013.

Graduate student researcher Dushani Palliyaguru is focused on one of the major mechanisms by which people are protected against environmental toxins and carcinogens: the Nrf2-Keap1 pathway, which regulates the inducible expression of cytoprotective enzyme expression of glutathione S-transferases; UDP-glucuronosyl transferases; and NAD(P)H:quinone reductase that facilitates the detoxication and elimination of toxins. The goal of her research is to understand the cross-talk between the Nrf2-Keap1 pathway and other biological pathways to study their roles in contributing to protection at the molecular, cellular, and organismal levels.

Graduate student researcher Hannah Pope-Varsalona is researching dysfunctional telomeres, the protective caps at chromosome ends that contribute to a variety of pulmonary diseases. Her team’s research is investigating several endpoints of telomere dysfunction in human cells proficient and deficient for specific translesion synthesis pathways following Cr(VI) exposures. Their study examines mechanisms by which Cr(VI) directly interacts with the genome and alters telomere integrity and one cellular pathway that protects telomeres in the face of genotoxic replication stress. Several companies have recently begun offering telomere tests as biomarkers for disease risk and systemic stress. The successful completion of this proposal will provide a scientific basis for the use of telomere length or integrity as a biomarker of environmentally relevant Cr(VI) exposures and potentially other genotoxic insults.

Graduate student researcher Courtney Roper’s research is centered on the hypothesis that spatially varying exposures to fine particulate matter composition and concentration may result in varying respiratory and cardiovascular inflammatory responses in mice. Collecting ambient fine particulate matter from the downtown Pittsburgh area and performing intratracheal instillations in mice allows for the study of inflammatory responses and markers in the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Utilizing this multidisciplinary approach is relevant to public health because it allows for investigation of health outcomes at “real-world” exposure levels and may further clarify the inflammatory responses that occur after particulate matter exposure.

Tyler “Ryan” Rubright is involved in two separate projects with the main focus of identifying air quality disparities in different exposure settings. The first study involves researching the effects of unconventional natural gas drilling on the air and water quality of residents in close proximity to these facilities. His second project involves air monitoring in the residences of individuals with asthma with the aim of identifying a common exposure. Both studies strive to improve public health by determining potentially harmful agents within private residences.
© 2017 by University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

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