Research and Training

SSEHRI research areas include biomonitoring and household exposure, chemical policy, brownfield redevelopment, community monitoring at fracking sites, and climate change impacts of health.

Research Grants

Barriers in Translating Genomic Research into State Health Programs

  • National Human Genome Research Institute K01 HG006441. PI Laura Senier (NU). 2012 – 2017.
  • Identifies common elements that enhance capacity in public health genomics across states, and will clarify which elements may be unique or would work only in a particular state. This research will identify guidelines that will help states modernize public health genetics programs in ways that are ethical, equitable, and cost-effective.

Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development in Puerto Rico

  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Environmental Protection Agency (Children’s Environmental Health Center) 1P50ES026049-01COTC. PIs Akram Alshawabkeh (NU), Jose Cordero (University of Puerto Rico). 2015-2019.
  • This multi project program builds on the PROTECT cohort, following 600 children born to PROTECT mothers, examining environmental chemicals and neurological outcomes, as well as asthma and other respiratory conditions resulting from air pollution.
  • Phil Brown is Co-Director of the Community Outreach and Translation Core.

Data Sharing and Privacy Protection in Digital-Age Environmental Health Studies

  • National Institutes of Health R01 ES021726-03. PIs Phil Brown (NU), Julia Brody (SSI). 2012-2017.
  • Increased data-sharing can accelerate science and stretch research dollars, but fears of re-identification of study participants from readily available datasets raise concerns about protecting privacy, a central ethical responsibility in human subjects research. This project investigates privacy risks and solutions for sharing data from environmental health studies, a field where these issues have not yet been widely discussed. This project will empirically design and validate strategies for protecting privacy while facilitating wider sharing of EH data. The results will include a computational model that researchers, agencies, and IRBs can use to anticipate which variables pose privacy risks. We will apply the model to 10 prominent existing EH studies to provide the first assessment of the extent of privacy risks in this field. We will formulate empirically based guidance on how to redact or modify data to protect privacy while optimizing usefulness. This privacy utility assessment is important in order to identify variables that may be unexpectedly problematic and avoid redacting valuable data in ways that don’t benefit privacy. We expect that many chemical exposure measurements themselves will have low privacy risk, although ancillary data used to interpret exposures and link them to health will create re-ID possibilities. This creates an imperative to improve and secure report back processes in ways that can also protect access to useful data for researchers and communities.

Hazards SEES Enhancing Emergency Preparedness for Critical Infrastructure Failure During Extreme Heat Events

  • National Science Foundation 1520803. CI Sharon Harlan (NU). 2015-2019.
  • This project is assessing the human, environmental, and technological impacts of concurrent heat wave and electrical grid failure (blackout) events in Atlanta, GA, Detroit, MI, and Phoenix, AZ. Extreme heat is among the leading causes of weather-related mortality in the U.S., and it is the environmental hazard most confidently projected to worsen with climate change. With an increasing reliance on mechanical cooling for heat management comes a growing potential for significant adverse impacts if electrical power is not available, particularly in cities where urban heat islands and other factors heighten climate change vulnerability.  Sharon Harlan is a co-investigator, working with research teams at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and Arizona State University to study human exposure to ambient temperatures in different types of residential buildings and to evaluate the potential for reductions in heat-related morbidity and mortality through environmental, technological, and behavioral adaptations during extreme events.

Poly- and Perfluorinated Chemicals: The Social Discovery of a Class of Emerging Contaminants

  • National Science Foundation SES-1456897. PIs Phil Brown (NU), Alissa Cordner (Whitman). 2015-2018.
  • This NSF-funded project investigates the discovery and re-discovery of per- and polyfluorinated chemicals, a class of carbon-fluorine-based chemicals widely used in industrial production and found in numerous consumer products.  This project seeks to understand the confluence of actors and conditions necessary for the periodic discoveries of the health and environmental impacts of these chemicals.  Additionally, this project will focus on how contamination episodes in three locations have impacted the awareness, regulation and research related to this class of chemicals.

Puerto Rican Testsite to Explore Contamination Threats (PROTECT)

  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Superfund Research Program) 5P42ES017198-06. PIs Akram Alshawabkeh (NU), Jose Cordero (University of Puerto Rico). 2013-2018.
  • This multi-project program investigates preterm births in communities surrounding toxic waste and Superfund sites in Puerto Rico, with emphasis on TCE and phthalates. The cohort of pregnant and post-partum mothers is now over 1100, with a goal of 1800.
  • Phil Brown is Co-Director of the Community Engagement Core and Director of the Research Translation Core.

Sustainability Research Network, Urban Water Innovation Network (UWIN): Transitioning Toward Sustainable Urban Water Systems

  • National Science Foundation 1444758. PI Sharon Harlan (NU). 2015-2020.
  • The Urban Water Innovation Network (UWIN) is a collaborative partnership among 18 institutions, led by Colorado State University, that is investigating pressures on water systems in six regional U.S. hubs, engaging stakeholders in assessing the broad impacts and tradeoffs associated with sustainable solutions for future water, and developing indicators to measure change and improvements in water management. Sharon Harlan co-directs the UWIN Social Equity and Environmental Justice (SEEJ) team with Elizabeth Mack at Michigan State University.  They are working on several projects with other institutions, including the design for a household survey and building a database of urban water environmental justice cases, in order to ensure that SEEJ concerns are a high profile in all aspects of UWIN.  Participation in stakeholder meetings is being sought from marginalized populations that typically do not have voices in the municipal water decision-making process. Sociology Ph.D. student Stephanie Clark and Population Health Ph.D. student Mariana Sarango are collaborating on the project.

 

Training Grants

Research Opportunities for Undergraduates: Training in Environmental Health Science (ROUTES)

  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences 1R25ES025496-01. PIs Akram Alshawabkeh (NU), Helen Suh (NU). 2015-2020.
  • The ROUTES program is developed to increase the number of undergraduate underrepresented minority (URM) students participating in the environmental health (EH) research, training them in interdisciplinary settings and continuing onto graduate studies and lifelong EH research careers. ROUTES engages and prepares URM students for EH research careers through hands-on research experience, research community engagement, training, mentoring, and support. This program is bringing together the combined educational and experiential resources of Northeastern University faculty (with associated research centers and institutes), who provide their teaching, mentoring, and research expertise in environmental health sciences, including that in environmental engineering, environmental epidemiology, exposure sciences, and environmental chemistry and biology.
  • Phil Brown is a Faculty Mentor. Two ROUTES students are part of the research team on “Poly- and Perfluorinated Chemicals: The Social Discovery of a Class of Emerging Contaminants.”

Transdisciplinary Training at the Intersection of Environmental Health and Social Science

  • National Institute of Environmental Health 1 T32 ES023769-01A1. PIs Phil Brown (NU), Julia Brody (SSI). 2015-2020.
  • This five-year training grant will provide support for six doctoral students for three years each, and three post-docs for two years each. Trainees divide their time between SSEHRI and Silent Spring Institute, with time spent working with additional Northeastern faculty and community organizations as well.

 

Other Research Programs

Fracking Research Program

Numerous graduate and undergraduate research projects around fracking continue under the direction of Sara Wylie. Graduate student Jacob Matz collaborated with South West Pennsylvania Environmental Health Research Project, examining the use of citizen science air quality monitoring in Pennsylvania. Matz presented his work at the Society for Applied Anthropology in the Spring of 2015 as part of a panel on Citizen Science and Fracking organized by Wylie. The panel’s papers will be shared as a special issue of the new STS online, open access journal Engaging Science Technology and Society. Elizabeth Wilder, graduate student, is researching natural gas pipeline development in collaboration with Toxics Action Center. Lourdes Vera, sociology graduate student is working with Wylie to develop citizen science tools to map hydrogen sulfide.

 

JPB Environmental Health Fellowship Program

“An innovative approach to support junior faculty at U.S. Institutions engaged in research on social and physical determinants of environmental health relevant to underserved communities.”

In 2014 Sara Wylie received this prestigious Environmental Health Fellowship through Harvard’s School of Public Health, supported by the JPB Foundation. This three-and-a-half year fellowship supports Wylie’s development  and implementation of low-cost tools for communities to map hydrogen sulfide, a hazardous air pollutant associated with oil and gas development. She is also developing and testing with performance artists ways to visualize pollution in real time, continuing work mapping pollution from Tar Sand refining in Southeast Chicago and developing websites to share data developed by citizen scientists.

 

Preparing Crowdsource Disaster Response to Fracking Emergencies

With the support of the New World Foundation Sara Wylie and Publiclab.org have been collaboratively developing a tool for crowd sourcing image analysis following disasters. Online open source tools are transforming disaster response by enabling the public to augment federal agencies in providing and directing assistance. Using a Public Lab tool during Hurricane Sandy, Open Street Maps Humanitarian Team (HOT OSM) collaborated with FEMA to organize 6000 online volunteers to sort images of the damage. The project helped to rapidly identify damaged areas and target FEMA’s relief effort. In collaboration with Computer Science faculty member Seth Cooper, Wylie and Public Lab are developing this infrastructure into a stable crowdsourcing tool to help with disaster response related to fracking. Undergraduate Rebecca Govoni received a Northeastern Provost Research Award to work on the project.

 

Completed Research Projects

  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Ethical and Legal Challenges in Communicating Biomonitoring and Personal Exposure Results to Participants” 2009-2016. (PIs Phil Brown (NU), Julia Brody (SSI), Rachel Morello-Frosch (UC Berkeley))
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Virtual Consortium for Translational/Transdisciplinary Environmental Research: ‘Ethical and Legal Challenges in Communicating Individual Biomonitoring and Personal Exposure Results to Study Participants: Guidance for Researchers and Institutional Review Boards” 2012-2016 (PIs Phil Brown (NU), Julia Brody (SSI), Rachel Morello-Frosch (UC Berkeley))
  • National Science Foundation: “New Directions in Environmental Ethics: Emerging Contaminants, Emerging Technologies, and Beyond” 2012-2016 (Phil Brown, PI)
  • National Science Foundation: “Northeast Ethics Education Partnership” 2013-2016 (PIs Dianne Quigley (Brown), David Sonnenfeld (SUNY-ESF), Phil Brown (NU))
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Social Science-Environmental Health Interdisciplinary Collaborations-Conference Grant” 2014-2015 (Phil Brown, PI)
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Superfund Research Program): “Reuse in RI: A State-Based Approach to Complex Exposures” 2005-2009; renewed 2009-2014 (Phil Brown, Co-PI/Community Outreach Core Director)
  • National Science Foundation: “Northeast Ethics Education Partnership for Research Ethics/Cultural Competence Training” 2010-2013 (Phil Brown, Co-PI)
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Formative Center for the Evaluation of Environmental Impacts on Fetal Development – Children’s Environmental Health Center 2009-2012 (Phil Brown, Co-PI and Director of Community Outreach and Translation Core)
  • National Science Foundation: “Flame Retardant Chemicals: Their Social Discovery as a Case Study for Emerging Contaminants” 2009-2012 (Phil Brown, PI)