Current Research Trainees

  • Claudia Dabie

    • Faculty Mentor: Brandon Pearson
    • School: Fordham University

    Project: Validation of immunohistochemical markers of brain toxicity associated with chronic drinking water metals exposures in mice

    There is a high prevalence of heart disease and diabetes afflicting rural areas in the US Northern Plains, including Indigenous communities. Toxic elements, such as arsenic (As) and uranium (U), are known to affect communities in the Northern Plains and are thought to contribute to the prevalence of these diseases. Hazardous metals in drinking water are major contaminants around Superfund sites and abandoned uranium mines. In addition, to cardiovascular diseases, there is burgeoning evidence that these metals are neurotoxic. This summer, I will be working with Dr. Brandon Pearson on a study to determine the neurological effects of arsenic and uranium from drinking water in private wells and rural water systems in the Northern Plains. We will utilize immunohistochemistry to visualize brain cells and tissue and assess for neurotoxicity in arsenic and uranium exposed mice. This project will advance the ability to recognize strong molecular signatures and mechanistic pathways in order to aid in the creation of intervention strategies and improve our understanding of the neurotoxicity of metals.

    Woman with braids in front of a blue background.
  • Leslie Delgado Muniz*

    • Faculty Mentors: Markus Hilpert & Steven Chillrud
    • School: Barnard College

    Project: Investigating Noise Pollution in Washington Heights

    The third most frequent chronic health condition in the United States is hearing loss. This summer, I investigated noise pollution in Washington Heights by recording and identifying the subjects responsible for super-emitter noises, which are defined as sound levels exceeding 70 dB. The EPA suggests an exposure limit of 70 dB in an individual's 24-hour noise exposure to avert hearing loss. Noise levels exceeding 85 dB can increase hearing damage with prolonged exposure. Therefore, analyzing sound levels near expressways is critical to understanding the environmental injustice the Washington Heights community is facing from their heightened vulnerability to hearing loss health effects.

    Woman with glasses and dark hair.
  • Laila Gad

    • Faculty Mentor: Ami Zota
    • School: Hunter College

    Project: Assessing the Impact of Chemical Hair Straightener and Relaxer Use on Cancer and Reproductive Outcomes in Women

    The environmental injustice of beauty spaces outlines the intersection between chemical exposures and the systemic oppression of women of color in the form of retailer redlining and racism. This summer, I worked on a systematic literature review of the potential relationship between chemical hair straightener and relaxer use and reproductive health outcomes in women across the United States. Through PubMed and Google Scholar, 16 studies were reviewed, and the varying frequency of hair relaxer use was discussed in terms of the likelihood of cancer and fertility outcomes. Using this review, I will begin a data analysis project focused on quantifying the relationship between chemical exposures from hair relaxers on expecting mothers and their fetuses. In addition, through Agents of Change in Environmental Justice, I had the opportunity to host a podcast episode with activist Neeshad Shafi highlighting Arabic voices in climate change spaces. Alongside the podcast, I conducted and presented my analysis of the 2023 AoC Fellows survey responses, building my qualitative analysis skillset and science communication.

    Woman with headscarf standing in front of water.
  • Ria Mahju

    • Faculty Mentor: Haotian (Howie) Wu
    • School: Rutgers University

    Project: Investigating the effects of Folic Acid Supplementation on the Metabolome of Folic Acid Naïve populations

    Vitamin B9, or folate, is a crucial nutrient, responsible for many processes within the body such as growth and development of tissue cells and healthy red blood cell formation. Fortification of folate through its synthetic form, Folic Acid, has already been mandated in numerous countries to prevent issues such as neural tube defects in fetuses or folate deficiency anemia. However, the side effects of excessive supplementation and unmetabolized folic acid in circulation have not been extensively studied. Our project seeks to understand 1) how folic acid supplementation results in unmetabolized folic acid in circulation and 2) the metabolic pathways altered by folic acid supplementation. I will be using data from Dr. Mary Gamble’s FACT study in Bangladesh, which introduced the supplement to a folic acid naïve population in a randomized, controlled clinical trial. Under the guidance of Dr. Haotian Wu, I will be working with data comparing supplement dosage/period to metabolite concentrations by employing multivariable regression models as well as other statistical methods to advance current knowledge of folic acid supplementation.

    Smiling woman with dark hair.
  • Isaac Mullings*

    • Faculty Mentor: Diane Re
    • School: Fordham University

    Project: Gene-Environment Interaction and Metal Exposure in Neurodegenerative Diseases

    Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and Parkinson’s disease (PD) are two neurodegenerative diseases, mostly sporadic and that are believed to involve gene-environment interactions. Among environmental factors potentially implicated in their etiology, exposure to neurotoxic metals is a prime suspect. This summer I was involved in two projects: 1) a continuation of a gene-metal interaction ALS modeling project in mice looking into biomarkers of disease progression; 2) a new project investigating whether chronic exposure to metals from electronic cigarette (e-cig) aerosol trigger neurotoxicity and increase the risk of developing PD in mice. In the ALS project, ionized calcium-binding adapter molecule 1 (IBA1) and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) were quantified for their presence and density in the spinal cord and brain of mice exposed to manganese via drinking water and carrying or not a mutation in TDP-43 increasing their risk of developing ALS. A pathological feature common to most cases of ALS is the accumulation of the protein TDP-43 and its pathogenic phosphorylated form (pTDP-43) in the patient's central nervous system. A major portion of this summer was set in contributing to the second project on e-cig-derived metal exposures and PD in which I was given the privilege of measuring metals in brain samples, including the ventral midbrain, hippocampus, striatum, frontal cortex, and olfactory bulb of mice carrying or not a LRRK2 mutation linked to PD and exposed for 6 months to e-cig aerosols. The next step will be to carry out the same pathological investigations I did in ALS in the e-cig exposed mice and taking images of the brain staining's for GFAP and IBA1. The project's goal is to contribute to advancing our understanding on the etiology of ALS and PD in relation to chronic metal exposure. I will be working on these projects throughout the year.

    Smiling man wearing a dark blue suit.
  • Alex Olivares*

    • Faculty Mentors: Maya Deyssenroth & Hui-Chen Wu
    • School: Hunter College

    Project: Impact of alcohol exposure on placental gene expression patterns in the JEG-3 cell line

    Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) is a group of conditions caused by prenatal alcohol exposure from maternal alcohol consumption. Children who suffer from these conditions face various neurological effects, including learning disabilities, poor memory, speech problems, and hyperactive behavior. My project entails characterizing potential placental biomarkers as early indicators of FASDs. In continuation of my work from last year, I employed various cell culture techniques, manipulation of nucleic acids, and PCR strategies on the JEG-3 cell line to test placental expression changes of candidate genes in response to ethanol exposure. Specifically, this summer I furthered my investigation of the relationship between TEK and prenatal alcohol exposure while also beginning investigations for the genes, SNCA and PP1MD based on findings reported in previous studies. Should any of these genes show a strong correlation with the placental gene expression, they could provide mechanistic insight into the pathway leading to FASDs and serve as candidates to develop screening biomarkers to identify FASDs early.

    Smiling man wearing a white shirt.
  • Izzy (Isabella) Pacenza

    • Faculty Mentor: Yoshi van Horne
    • School: Barnard College

    Project: Metal Exposures and Indigenous Health: Theory and Approaches for Reporting Research Results

    Isabella (Izzy) Pacenza is a first-year PrIMER trainee and senior at Barnard College studying Environment and Sustainability as well as Sociology. Izzy is committed to advancing research at the intersection of environmental science and Indigenous health. She works closely with Drs. Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne and Ana Navas-Acien as part of the ongoing Columbia University Northern Plains Superfund Research Program (CUNP-SRP), which seeks to generate new knowledge and advance solutions to metal exposures using systems science and local expertise. Izzy focuses on balancing urgency, clear communication, and culturally relevant recommendations to understand the best ways to report back individual metal sample results to study participants. She is leading a literature review on the theory vs. application of approaches in the report back of research results, identifying novel dissemination techniques, and strategizing implementation solutions.

    Smiling woman sitting outside.
  • Andres Silva*

    • Faculty Mentor: Norman Kleiman
    • School: Fordham University

    Project: Mutational analysis of Far-UVC radiation using a GFP reporter imbedded in a CAG repeat sequence

    Multiple repeats of short DNA sequences within the genome are associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s. Environmental insults such as oxidative stress or UV irradiation can cause mutation that affects the number of these repeats within a specific stretch of DNA. We are using human embryonic kidney cells that have a green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter gene inserted into the middle of these repeats to examine the effect of far-UVC irradiation on repeat length. Changes in the number of repeats affect the fluorescent intensity and thus allows us to examine the potential for far-UVC-induced mutation.

    Man wearing glasses and a blue shirt.
  • Z (Z'Dhanne) Williams*

    • Faculty Mentor: Allison Kupsco
    • School: Molloy University

    Project: Investigating the Influence of Mitochondrial Biomarkers on Children’s Neurodevelopment and Kidney Disease

    Many environmental toxicants accumulate within the mitochondria and pose damage to the Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) impairing critical processes within cells. The mtDNA is highly vulnerable to oxidative stress which activates systemic inflammatory reactions and is recognized as a biomarker for cellular stress. Our project is focused on using cord blood samples from a cohort population of Dominican and African American children from Northern Manhattan. The samples of blood will be used to uncover the influence cellular mtDNA and Cell-Free Mitochondrial DNA (cf-mtDNA) biomarkers have on children's health. The general purpose of the project is to provide preliminary data on novel mtDNA biomarkers for prenatal metal exposures and child neurodevelopment for future studies. We are also focused on using urine samples from a population in Sri Lanka to determine if urinary mtDNA can be used as a biomarker of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu). Under the directive of Dr. Allison Kupsco, I am working towards optimizing novel biomarkers for future environmental health studies, including Cell-free Mitochondria DNA and Mitochondrial DNA. Our goal is to ultimately gain a better understanding of the molecular basis of children's environmental health to advance the early detection and prevention of environmental disease.

    Smiling woman with dark hair and glasses.

* 2nd year in the program