Environmental Health Scientist Wins Prestigious NIH Early Independence Award

October 18, 2021

Anne Nigra, ‘20 PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, is one of only ten scientists awarded an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award this year. The five-year $2 million grant will allow Nigra, who joined the Columbia Mailman faculty last week, to evaluate racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities in public drinking water contamination and how they contribute to adverse birth outcomes across the United States.

Her study proposal responds directly to an NIH Strategic Plan 2020 aim to understand the mechanisms that lead to health disparities by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status and develop evidence-based interventions to reduce health disparities.

Nigra is developing community-level estimates of exposure to more than 80 regulated public drinking water contaminants—the first analysis of its kind—to see how inequalities in exposure relate to race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Next, she will examine the potential contribution of these exposures to measured levels of contaminants in utero and subsequent infant health outcomes across three diverse birth cohorts. Finally, she will assess the impact of national public drinking water regulations on infant health outcomes in at-risk communities.

“The crisis in Flint, Michigan, drew much-needed attention to inequities in drinking water contamination across the U.S., especially for low-income communities of color. Unfortunately, many communities across the country are impacted by other water contaminants, including for example, rural, Indigenous, and Hispanic communities,” says Nigra. “By shedding light on the contribution of public drinking water inequalities to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic exposure and health disparities, I hope to inform drinking water regulatory standards and infrastructure interventions.”

After earning a PhD in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia Mailman last year, Nigra stayed on to begin a postdoctoral research fellowship under Professor Ana Navas-Acien, an expert in the long-term health effects of metal exposures who directs the Columbia Superfund Research Program. While it is common for postdoctoral fellowships to last several years, Nigra’s postdoctoral fellowship lasted only one year. The NIH Early Independence Award is geared to “enable outstanding junior scientists to skip the traditional postdoctoral training period to launch independent research careers.”

Nigra’s research is broadly focused on understanding the relationship between metal exposures and related chronic disease, and on assessing population-level metal exposures using both biological and environmental monitoring. In an earlier study, she examined the link between water and dietary arsenic exposure and cardiovascular and all-cause mortality in the U.S. She also published the first study of drinking water quality in correctional facilities across the U.S., which found elevated arsenic exposure among incarcerated populations in the Southwest. A third study with community-based collaborators in the Northern Plains will characterize mercury exposure in tribal communities using both biomonitoring and environmental monitoring.

“I am thrilled to welcome Anne Nigra to our faculty. I extend my congratulations to her on winning the prestigious NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, which recognizes her exceptional talents as an environmental health scientist and supports important work in addressing environmental injustices,” says Andrea Bacarelli, chair of Environmental Health Sciences.