University of Maryland School of Public Health (UMD SPH) assistant professor Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges has been awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) K01 Career Development Award for a project focused on how combined exposure to environmental and social stressors affects child neurological development. The three-year grant from the NIH National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences totals more than $400,000.
Previous research has shown that children’s exposure to multiple environmental and social stressors contributes to pronounced health disparities and adversely affects cognitive development. These stressors are influenced by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
“We often talk about multiple risk factors in public health, but our policies don’t reflect that. Environmental health policies tend to focus on one chemical or pollutant at a time even in the presence of multiple factors that interact within a larger context to contribute to negative health outcomes,” explains Dr. Payne-Sturges, who is in the UMD SPH’s Institute for Applied Environmental Health. “We need a new approach that allows us to think long-term about the policy decisions we are making,” she adds.
Dr. Payne-Sturges believes systems science is the solution. With system science methodologies, researchers can design simplified models that replicate the real world. Researchers are then able to manipulate different factors within these models to evaluate the health impacts and risks from the complex interaction of multiple factors.
Dr. Payne-Sturges will use systems science approaches to assess the effects of cumulative early life exposures to atmospheric particulate matter and psychosocial stressors on children’s cognitive function and test whether race/ethnicity and sex modify these associations. Her research will lay the groundwork for future studies that can then assess public health interventions and environmental policy applications.
“Policy makers need to recognize that is possible to conduct an analysis of multiple risk factors to create more effective policies. I want the conversation to stop being stalled by a lack of data and methodologies and move towards implementing interventions that reduce health disparities and make people’s lives better,” Dr. Payne-Sturges urges.
Dr. Payne-Sturges will be guided by team of exceptional mentors including professor Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta of the Rochester Medical Center, a renowned neurotoxicologist whose research centers on the combined negative effects of developmental lead exposure and stress on animals; University of Maryland Professor Dr. Stephen Thomas a leading scholar in racial and ethnic health disparities; University of Maryland assistant professor Dr. Robin Puett, an expert on air pollution-related health outcomes; and Dr. Ross Hammond a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution whose primary area of expertise is modeling complex dynamics in economic, social, and public health systems using mathematical and computational methods from complexity systems science.
Dr. Payne-Sturges will also call on her colleagues at Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks) a national consortium of leading scientists, health professionals and children’s and environmental advocates where she serves as the co-chair of the air pollution working group.