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Faculty & Staff Honors

Texas A&M Scientists Receive NIEHS Superfund Grant to Conduct Environmental Research

Texas A&M Superfund Research Center scientists from across campus will conduct four environmental research projects funded by a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

[Photo: Drs. Jennifer Horney and Thomas McDonald]

Established in 1987, the NEIHS Superfund Research Program is a highly competitive grant-based program that funds a network of 16 university-based multidisciplinary research teams that study human health and environmental issues related to hazardous chemicals, with a goal of understanding the link between exposure and disease.

Two Texas A&M School of Public Health faculty will be leading major parts of the study. The Community Engagement Core will be lead by Dr. Jennifer Horney, associate professor and interim department head of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics. Dr. Thomas McDonald, professor and assistant dean of academic affairs, will lead the Research Translation Core.

Work on each core research project is based on exposure to chemical mixtures that could result from a major storm making landfall and bringing storm surge through Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel into Houston, Texas. By examining the chemicals found within the sediments in the Bay and Ship Channel and developing models to predict their distribution in a disaster, the research teams hope to improve understanding of the complexities of hazardous chemical exposures and potential adverse health impacts.

The project Dr. Horney will lead focuses on building capacity among community members in the detection, assessment and evaluation of the health effects of hazardous substances; developing tools and resources for community engagement using mobile applications and citizen science; engaging community members in collaborative participatory research aimed at reducing exposure during environmental emergencies; and determining what factors will improve the adaptive capacity of Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel communities to proactively plan for and manage future environmental risks linked to both natural and manmade environmental emergency contamination events.

As part of the Community Engagement Core, Dr. Horney and her team will work with stakeholder groups in neighborhoods located along the Houston Ship Channel.

“Engaging residents is important because residents frequently have local knowledge that we can integrate into our research hypotheses. Incorporating local knowledge from an engaged community has the power to improve models and predictions, and to help neighborhoods anticipate future threats and prepare for and recover from adverse events,” Dr. Horney said.

In addition to resident engagement, research results must make it onto the desks of policy- and decision-makers.

“The Research Translation Core works in close coordination with other researchers to identify the greatest opportunities for improving environmental health decision-making,” Dr. McDonald said. “Our team will work to improve communication and technology transfer of center research findings to multiple stakeholders.”

Key technology transfer opportunities include methods being developed for chemical detection, exposure mitigation, in vitro testing of organ-specific toxicity, and in vitro testing for endocrine disrupting chemicals. Additionally, the Research Translation Core aims to develop a suite of modular online decision-support tools in the form of “Dashboards” to provide access to and visualization of data and predictions of fate and transport, exposure (including analytical chemistry), toxicokinetics, hazards and risks. A broad-based communication strategy will include web-based dissemination of research findings, as well as “active” communication through partnerships with local communities.

This grant demonstrates a commitment to the development of innovative and timely approaches to potential environmental disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, to mitigate the health and environmental consequences of exposure to those impacted the most.