Jan 31 2017

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Strength in Diversity: Q&A With Amy Lavery, PhD, New Diversity Fellow

diversity fellowThe Research Institute’s commitment to cultivating and producing strong scientific research is grounded in the diverse mix of experiences, talents, and perspectives that our researchers contribute to our success.

“Diversity has long been a key driver of achievement at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Research Institute, particularly when it comes to innovation and performing more accurate and inclusive research,” wrote Bryan A. Wolf, MD, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer and Director of the Research Institute, in a Cornerstone blog post. “Organizations that have more diverse workforces are more successful — they make better decisions, have more effective teams, and are better positioned to meet the needs of the populations they serve who come from many different cultures and countries, and with varied backgrounds, experiences, and expectations.”

As a way to enhance the recruitment of a diverse population of postdoctoral fellows, the Research Institute last year launched the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity in partnership with Penn. The first two new CHOP diversity fellows began in August and already have their feet firmly planted in pediatric research. In this Q&A, meet Amy Lavery, PhD, a diversity scholar who is working with her mentor, Amy Waldman, MD, a pediatric neurologist and medical director of the Leukodystrophy Center. The edited conversation follows below.

Tell us a little bit about your background, and why you decided to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity.

Well, I was born and raised in Texas, and I moved up here in 2012 when my husband accepted a new job in the Philadelphia area. I had almost completed my PhD, and I was fortunate to find a position here at CHOP as a research coordinator working with a wonderful principal investigator, Dr. Waldman, who encouraged me to finish my degree. Over the last four years, I worked full-time with Dr. Waldman and part-time on my PhD at Temple University. I finished my PhD in July in public health with a focus on epidemiology and social and behavioral health. With this postdoc fellowship, I can continue some of the research projects we have been working on over the last few years, and I also have the dedicated time to branch out into other areas that interest me. I’ve been fortunate to have many strong female mentors, like Dr. Waldman, and a program like this hopefully will allow me to be a mentor for other women in sciences who are pushing their way forward through the academic system.

What research projects do you have underway that you’re most excited about? 

My dissertation research looked at secondhand smoke exposure and if there was a relationship that would suggest it was a risk factor for our pediatric multiple sclerosis (MS) population. We’re not sure of the causality of MS or why there seems to be increasing prevalence in children. My research showed a very slight association between secondhand smoke and MS, so my next thought was to take a closer look at some of the constituents in tobacco smoke that are also found as individual air pollutants in our environment.

To start off my postdoc, I’m doing a geographic information systems analysis, which is a way to map people’s locations in relation to things in their environment. I have a fairly large cohort of 280 pediatric MS patients to associate with environmental exposures like air and water pollutants. I’m using data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to relate these exposures and compare the relationships to over 400 healthy controls from all over the U.S.

That sounds like a helpful way to visualize a possible scientific association. Could you explain more how the mapping works?

It’s really cool. I put everybody’s points on a map to show where they’re located, using their zip code as a center point of reference. I then add specific environmental measures to the map which are generally analyzed by county by the EPA. The maps allow me to see these exposure and relate them to the residence of the study participants. So if there is a clustering of MS cases, we can run more analyses to see if those clusters may be related to something in their environment.

I’m starting off by using a public health tool called the Environmental Quality Index (EQI). It takes several environmental metrics into account such as air pollution, water pollution, nearness to pesticides or toxic release sites, and creates a scoring tool for each county. When I studied these EQI values by county in relationship to the cohort with MS, air pollution seemed to be a significant factor, and generally, it seems to suggest that people who live in areas with worse air quality are at higher risk for MS. Now I’m going to take it further and look at the particulate matter and various gases that contribute to poor air quality to determine if specific air constituents are impacting MS.

Why is it important to pinpoint these relationships between environmental factors and MS?

We ultimately want to figure out the biological mechanisms that may be behind these associations. One area of research is in oxidative stress. Other types of studies have shown air pollutants contribute to other health problems such as heart disease and respiratory illness, and oxidative stress is a big component of our bodies’ response to try to combat those stress toxins. The next step is trying to identify some kind of biomarker that we could assess that indicates the possible relationship. We want to find out if air pollution that is related to oxidative stress could lead to a problem with the immune system and if that is ultimately related to MS in kids.

It’s obvious from your enthusiasm that you enjoy doing this kind of research. Why does it interest you?

I’m very interested in exposure science and trying to figure out the relationships to our health. For me, it’s really exciting that we’re getting to this point in public health where we can try so many of these nice tools and combine them with the public data that the EPA has generated.

Broadly, I want to focus my career on trying to improve people’s health through making sure our environment is a clean and safe one to live in. If some people are more susceptible to certain toxins in the air, I think it is going to be really important for people to know so that they can reduce the impact on their families’ health, particularly if it leads to chronic illness.

I have a passion for problem-solving and trying to discover things. I like the mystery and trying to find a solution. Anything that I don’t understand, I have an urge to better understand why it happens.

Editor’s note: Also get to know Brian Estevez, PhD, a new diversity scholar who is working in the lab of Mortimer Poncz, MD, chief of the division of Hematology at CHOP. Find more information about diversity and inclusion at the Research Institute here.

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