A woman and a man pose in a lab

Environmental Health Sciences Trainee Wins a Fulbright

June 17, 2024

Last summer, Isaac Mullings participated in a Columbia Mailman training program in environmental health sciences for undergraduates. Less than a year later, he was one of the select few to receive a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to pursue research that builds on what he learned from Columbia scientists.

Mullings is a first-generation Ghanaian American and is the first in his family to graduate from college; he earned a B.A. in Psychology from Fordham in May. Last summer, he was one of nine participants in the NIEHS-funded PrIMER (Program to Inspire and Mentor Undergraduates in Environmental Health Science Research)—one of several Columbia Mailman training and mentoring programs to boost the number of BIPOC and first-generation college graduates who pursue careers in public health. Since it launched in 2015, PrIMER has trained 51 undergraduates—several of whom have gone on to earn advanced degrees in environmental health sciences and biomedicine.

Mullings’ mentor is Diane Re, associate professor of environmental health sciences, a neuroscientist focused on investigating environmental risk factors and mechanisms for neurodegenerative diseases. Working alongside Re and her laboratory team, Mullings learned techniques to measure metals and other neurotoxicants in blood samples. The goal is to develop biomarkers to better assess brain exposure to these substances and how these exposures play a role in diseases like ALS and Parkinson's disease.

Beyond the technical specifics, Mullings said one of the most important lessons he learned was the team approach of a successful lab. “I saw that impactful science does not happen in isolation but through a collaborative effort,” he says. The experience inspired him to apply for a Fulbright to study the effects of metal pollution in drinking water alongside collaborators in Ghana. He will travel to the country in August.

“Isaac arrived in our lab full of contagious enthusiasm. He was curious about everything and avid to learn,” Re recalls. “When he shared with me his dream of doing some research in Ghana, I was so excited to help him. It has been so rewarding to see him grow as a scientist. I am so proud of him for obtaining this prestigious fellowship.”

Earlier this year, Re worked with Mullings on his Fulbright application. She shared her experience with project ideation and grant writing, helping him with structure of his research aims and timeline. She also suggested a specific health outcome to focus on—peripheral neuropathy, a condition that damages the nerves largely in the hands and feet.

Looking ahead, Mullings says he wants to be a neuroscientist, researching gene-environment interactions and their impacts on neurological health, while at the same time educating and advocating for communities in Ghana and the U.S.

Says Mullings, “I am grateful to Dr. Re for showing me what it means to be a neuroscientist.”

Photo by Leslye Smith.