My name is Andrea Lewis. I am a recent graduate of West Chester University with a major in Environmental Health and minor in Health Education. The focus of my research in the STEER program stemmed from a previous research project in my field of interest, water quality as it relates to human health. In the Spring of 2019, I completed my first undergraduate research project to determine if extreme climate events, particularly heavy rainfall, have an association with disease prevalence in Philadelphia, PA. This summer I worked with Dr. Heather Burris investigating a possible association between the concentrations of chlorine disinfectant byproducts in the Philadelphia municipal water supply and the prevalence of preterm birth. These byproducts’ effects on human health and the significant associations between racial and ethnic disparities among Philadelphian citizens have made the social and environmental implications of this research highly relevant.
What is your summer research project?
This summer, my project focused on understanding the associations between preterm birth rates in Philadelphia, PA and the city’s water supply concentrations of Trihalomethanes (THMs), a chlorine disinfectant byproduct. The research was conducted using data from a Penn Medicine prospectively enrolled pregnancy cohort and Philadelphia Water Department’s monthly data on Trihalomethane concentrations. My mentor, Dr. Heather Burris, and I created personal exposure profiles for each woman in the cohort dependent on the woman’s zip code of residence and the date of an immune test that was performed before preterm birth occurred. With this, we were able to create spatiotemporal variance to determine if THM levels had an effect on women’s immune states, specifically cervicovaginal microbiota and beta defensin levels, and in term preterm birth rates in Philadelphia between 2013-2017.
What are the implications of your research?
Counter to our hypothesis, we did not detect strong associations between THM levels and cervicovaginal microbiota or beta defensin levels. We did however find significant associations between cervicovaginal immune states and a woman’s race as black women have a 50% higher risk of preterm birth than white women. This is likely due to the co-exposures of social and environmental factors that differ by race due to structural factors like medical bias and residential segregation. This together with Trihalomethanes may alter the immune state.
What new skills have you gained through your research?
My work as part of the fully remote STEER program this summer has opened my eyes to the many researched opportunities that are available with the open data accessible online. I have always taken an interest in environmental toxicology, but through creating personal profiles for each woman in the biomedical prospective cohort, I learned the intricacies of integrating environmental exposure data with personal information. The STEER program has enriched my research experience and I am so grateful to have worked with and learned from so many great researchers while in it.