The Short Term Educational Experiences of Research in Environmental Science for Undergraduates (STEER) Program is a ten week summer internship awarded to undergraduate students interested in environmental health. Through a collaboration between the CEET, the Center for Public Health Initiatives and multiple schools and faculty at Penn, the STEER program provides didactic experiences in environmental and public health, as well as research mentorship opportunities in a variety of areas of environmental exposures and health effects. The COEC will be highlighting the achievements and experiences of 2015 STEER students below.
I am a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying Environmental Studies with a concentration in Policy and Application. After graduation, I plan to attend graduate school with hopes of attaining a Master in Public Health and a Master in Environmental Science. I developed an interest in environment health after surviving a near-death experience caused by an infectious disease. Studies have shown that many human diseases and illnesses such as cancers can be caused by changes in the environment. For example, throat cancers can be caused by chemicals leaking from a plant into a drinking water source and lung cancers can be caused by air toxics being released from an oil refinery near a neighboring community. Unfortunately, many of the communities that are subject to environmental risks are ones that do not have a lot of power or resources to take preventative or reactive measures to ensure their own safety. Studying these environmental justice communities and providing them with the proper tools to protect themselves, while eliminating the environmental exposures, can be very rewarding as you watch the health of a community improve.
What is your summer research project?
This summer in the STEER program, I have been working with Richard Pepino, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to investigate childhood lead poisoning in Lancaster City, which has one of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in Pennsylvania. Through the resources provided from a Pennsylvania State Grant, we were tasked with finding the most critical areas to target in order to most effectively test for possible pathways of lead exposure besides lead paint. First, we used Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map the total number of documented lead screens, the total number of children who possess elevated blood lead levels (BLL>5ug/dL), and the locations of childcare centers within Lancaster City. After examining the maps, we decided that the most critical area is census tract 42071000400, which is the area with the lowest testing rates with the highest amount of children with elevated blood lead levels and the highest amount of childcare centers. Our next step was to identify possible exposure pathways that could be contributing to the prevalence of childhood lead poisoning. In our literature review, we came across the idea that sometimes lead fill was used when construction workers needed to raise the level of the railroad tracks. Using this as a possible theory, we research all possible railroad activities that are currently or once resided in our target area. Though they aren’t present now, we discovered through georeferencing a map of Lancaster City and its old rail lines onto the map of the lead data that the Pennsylvania Railroad ran right through census tract 42071000400. However, after testing several public areas where these railroads used to be, we were able to conclude that these rail lines are probably not contributing to high rate of lead poisoned children, but more conclusive research still needs to be done.
What are the implications of your research?
My research this summer provides some insight into how to work with an environmental justice community in order to solve the problem at hand while still communicating in ways that the community can understand. Although we were not able to come up with a definitive source of lead contributing to Lancaster’s lead poisoning problem, we were able to jumpstart the research to see if the lead fill from these rail lines are affecting the community. Even if rail lines may not be a potential cause in Lancaster City, researcher across the globe can use our research in order to see if they are a prominent effect elsewhere in the world.
What new skills have you gained through this experience?
Prior to the STEER program, I had limited experience in thinking critically about how a community is exposed to an environmental risk, in conducting field work, and in using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map out data relevant to our study. The STEER program has allowed me to gain access to these valuable skills and experiences that will surely be useful as I look to enter the public and environmental health sectors.