Tag: air pollution

Jill Johnston recognized at the 31st Annual Clean Air Awards

Dr. Johnston and her USC staff team (L-R): Wendy Gutschow, Jill Johnston, Amanda Jimenez, Dayane Duenas

On October 4, 2019, Jill Johnston, PhD was recognized for her outstanding contributions in the field of air pollution health research and efforts to improve public health as she received the Robert M. Zweig, M.D. Memorial Award given to her by the South Coast Air Quality Management District at their 31st Annual Clean Air Awards Luncheon in downtown Los Angeles.

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Learn with Trojans: How can we tell air pollution is bad for us?

This article is part of our new #LearnWithTrojans series, where we explore public health through student, faculty and alumni activities and research at USC.

We all know breathing dirty air is bad for our health. But do you know how we know this?  Noa Molshatzki, a candidate in the Doctor of Philosophy in Biostatistics program at the University of Southern California, set out to explain how researchers are discovering the link between air pollution and asthma—in a way we can all understand: a cartoon. See the video and transcript below.

Video courtesy Noa Molshatzki, PhD Biostatistics candidate

Air pollution, even at low levels, is linked with asthma and problems breathing, but the “how” part is not entirely clear.

Biomarkers are a promising tool for understanding the “black box” that links air pollution exposure and asthma.

What are biomarkers?

Biomarkers are measurements collected in many common medical tests that help us predict health outcomes. For example, high cholesterol, found in blood tests, is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.

Biomarkers found in exhaled breath are super cool because they are non-invasive. Blowing air into a detector beats blood tests, however—there’s always a “however”—at the moment, data on exhaled breath biomarkers is relatively noisy.

An obvious way to improve accuracy is to improve the measurement tools, but that could be expensive. Another way is to improve the statistical tools used to linking these biomarkers to health outcomes.

I work with exhaled nitric oxide—a breath biomarker that tends to be higher in people exposed to air pollution and higher in people with asthma.

So how does it go?

Exposure to air pollution causes airway inflammation. Airway inflammation causes increased production of nitric oxide in the lungs. This can be detected by simply exhaling into an analyzer.

But, it gets better.

The biological processes that cause nitric oxide production can be described by a physiological mathematical model. So, not only that, nitric oxide helps detect airway inflammation, we can use statistics to learn where exactly in the lungs nitric oxide is produced without actually cutting open a human body.

It takes time to develop asthma.

Tracking exhaled nitric oxide helped us open the black box and see how air pollution exposure causes asthma. And that could give us an early warning sign that something is wrong, way before the disease.

What do I do?

I work on cutting-edge statistical methods to find the best way to perform the exhalation test (Should you breathe fast or slow? How many times?), and find the best way to analyze the results.

My work can dramatically improve our ability to find the links between air pollution, exhaled nitric oxide and asthma.

While my research is focused on exhaled nitric oxide, the statistical methods I work with could be used in a wide range of scientific topics.

Is a career in biostatistics right for you? Learn more about our department’s biostatistics offerings.

Learn more about USC’s environmental health research.

Are you a Department of Preventive Medicine student or alumni? Inquire today about making your own #LearnWithTrojans video!


USC, Mexico make strides in public health research

Jonathan Samet has partnered with many Mexican agencies on studies involving public health issues.

For more than 20 years, Jonathan Samet has developed strategies to prevent smoking in Mexico, with help from scientists and leaders at the country’s National Institute of Public Health (INSP).

The USC Distinguished Professor teams with several of Mexico’s 12 institutes of health, which aim to improve public health through research, policy and care. The INSP’s research centers and school of public health examine tobacco, obesity and other issues that contribute to health problems.

Samet assisted in the development of the institute’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and co-founded the Summer Program in Public Health, one of the largest of its kind in Latin America, with INSP Director Mauricio Hernández-Ávila. Samet has taught in the program every year since it began 22 years ago and has arranged for Trojans to teach there as well.

Building momentum

Since 2008, the year of Samet’s arrival at USC, the Department of Preventive Medicine has gained momentum in its research and scholarly exchanges with Mexico. Samet’s ties to INSP have enabled USC researchers to collaborate on various public health projects in the country and among Mexican and immigrant populations.

“The U.S. and Mexico share more than a border,” said Samet, holder of the Flora L. Thornton Chair in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We share health challenges but also the expertise to combat them.”

In 2015, preventive medicine professors Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati and Mary Ann Pentz founded the Center for Health Equity in the Americas to advance health equity in the region through research, training and partnerships. Using findings from an international summit in October, the group is working with INSP on a cervical cancer prevention report to be published in INSP’s journal, Salud Pública de Mexico, later this year.

Other centers in the department, including the Institute for Global Health, the Program on Global Health & Human Rights and the Immigrant Health Initiative, have hosted Mexican researchers and collaborators for talks, seminars and training on subjects, including sexually transmitted infectionsobesity, H1N1premature mortality and cervical cancer prevention.

Institute for Global Health Associate Director Heather Wipfli collaborated with INSP in 2016 to survey Mexican corporations about how health and wellness are integrated into their workplaces. The project is helping to inform the global cancer prevention programs begun by the American Cancer Society.

Another recent project, led by USC neurologist John Ringman and Mellissa Withers, assistant professor of clinical in the Department of Preventive Medicine, examined knowledge and attitudes regarding Alzheimer’s disease, genetics and participation in research among populations at-risk for a rare form of early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease in Mexico.

Fair exchange

In 2015, the Department of Preventive Medicine welcomed INSP postdoctoral fellow Katia Gallegos as part of an initiative with Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology, in which USC provides scholars from Mexico with residencies in fields related to science, technology and innovation.

Gallegos is working with large binational data sets to determine the impact of acculturation in patterns of physical activity and sedentary behavior, as well as its association with body mass index observed in Mexicans, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans. In addition, she is teaming with U.S. tobacco-use databases to study young people with mental illness who use multiple tobacco products.

Department researchers have also examined Mexico’s indoor smoking bancigarette sales tax, drug reform and teenagers’ smoking habits, as well as mental health risks and lower colorectal cancer susceptibility among Mexicans who migrated to the United States.

Along with Mexican and other U.S. scientists, USC researchers in 2013 discovered a genetic link associated with higher Type 2 diabetes risk among Mexican populations. Most recently, a study found that Latino children living in areas with higher levels of air pollution have a greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Career dedicated to public health


Jonathan Samet accepts an honorary degree awarded by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health. (Photo/Heather Wipfli)

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the INSP gave Samet an honorary doctorate recognizing his contributions to public health on Jan. 27.

At that event, Hernández-Ávila cited Samet’s scientific and professional achievements, among them his 27 books, 127 chapters and more than 350 scientific articles. “This Honoris Causa is awarded to recognize Dr. Samet’s work for global public health — for the health of all people,” he said.

A graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Samet has participated since the 1980s in the reports of the U.S. surgeon general on smoking and health, and he served as senior scientific editor for the 50-year anniversary edition in 2014. Most recently, he contributed to the 2016 surgeon general report on e-cigarettes and youth, the first of its kind.

His work has contributed to national legislation to control tobacco use, air pollution and radiation both in the United States and Mexico.

“I’m honored to be a part of this celebration to mark INSP’s decades-long commitment to public health in Mexico and to receive this very high recognition,” Samet said. “I look forward to continuing our partnership for many years to come.