Sowing new seeds of collaboration

Pitt’s School of Public Health and Swanson School of Engineering award $220K to four collaborative projects addressing climate change, global health and environmental justice

Addressing global issues – especially related to the environment, human health and climate – requires breaking down silos and jump starting interdisciplinary research. Two schools at the University of Pittsburgh have launched a new initiative to sow the seeds for this growth through a new funding initiative. 

“The health of the environment is inextricably linked to that of humans,” said Pitt Public Health Dean Maureen Lichtveld, MD, MPH. “This first deliberate stimulant for transdisciplinary climate and health research between the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and the Swanson School of Engineering is a bold move to forge collaborative research. As Dean, I was particularly excited to reward this new partnership with additional incentive funds. The program’s anticipated impact is three-pronged: competitive positioning for external funding in climate and health, career advancement of participating faculty, and an exemplar for future university-wide investment in research collaboration.”

Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering (SSOE) and School of Public Health (SPH) launched the Trans-Disciplinary Collaboration Pilot Awards this year to establish and strengthen collaborations between faculty members of both schools in the areas of climate change and health, global health and environmental justice. The program aims to enhance the university's expertise in these priority areas and ultimately help faculty better compete for large-scale external funding, and recently announced its first awardees.

“Engineers solve problems from nearly every facet of life, so it only makes sense to work together across disciplines to ensure those solutions are deeply considerate of human health, the environment, and society at large,” said Interim U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering Sanjeev Shroff, PhD. “This exciting new initiative with the School of Public Health will enhance our cross-disciplinary research and form fruitful collaborations for years to come.”

Funded projects will focus on underserved communities at the local, regional, and global levels and will feature collaboration between at least one SSOE faculty member and one SPH faculty member. This year’s chosen projects all feature faculty from the SSOE Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and SPH’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH).

“The most impactful science being done today is trans-disciplinary, and this is clearly appreciated by Deans Lichtveld and Shroff when they agreed to seed new collaborative projects between our two schools,” said David Vorp, senior associate dean for research and facilities at the Swanson School. “We chose to focus on the timely topics of climate change and its impacts on health, other issues affecting global health, and environmental justice. Each of the funded pilot grants fulfilled our mission to spur new engineering-public health research in these challenge areas, and we are excited to see what new knowledge the teams generate.”

“Cross-school collaborations form the heart of our work as faculty members and educators,” added Jeanine Buchanich, PhD, SPH associate dean for research and associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics. “These kinds of projects allow us to accomplish much more together, sparking our collective creativity and ability to problem solve around the most pressing issues confronting our global community.”

The inaugural Trans-Disciplinary Collaboration Pilot Awards include the following projects and investigators:

Environmental PFAS pollution, heat stress and kidney disease: a pharmacokinetic approach integrating persistent chemical exposures and climate change

Alison P. Sanders, PhD, assistant professor of EOH, SPH
Carla Ng, PhD, associate professor of CEE, SSOE

Kidney disease affects millions in the U.S. each year, and environmental issues—like climate change and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) exposure—are expected to increase the burden. This project, which will include co-investigators Shan Niu in the SSOE Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Neil Hukriede in Pitt’s School of Medicine’s Department of Developmental Biology and Integrative Systems Biology, proposes to evaluate the combined impacts of heat stress and PFAS exposure on kidney function using zebrafish as a model. The research will use climate-relevant pharmacokinetic modeling to investigate the effects of combined exposures on susceptible communities in the context of climate change.

Revealing environmental contamination and potential exposure pathways by PFAS in Suriname and Ghana

Firoz Abdoel Wahid, MD, MPH, PhD, assistant professor of EOH, SPH
Nesta Bortey-Sam, PhD, assistant professor of EOH, SPH
Carla Ng, PhD, associate professor of CEE, SSOE

The study aims to identify potential sources and exposure pathways to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Suriname and Ghana. While both countries are potentially exposed to PFAS, no study has examined local PFAS levels in the aquatic, terrestrial, and household environment, and its pathways for potential human exposure. The team will take environmental samples from food, homes, and the outdoor environment, quantifying 40 different PFAS compounds. The results of the study will inform future, more targeted environmental analysis of PFAS in both countries and will identify at-risk populations. The study will also provide a global perspective on the transport of PFAS-containing matter and biota, such as electronic waste and crops, to and from the U.S.

Simultaneous removal of greenhouse gas and air pollutant from waste gases by co-immobilized enzymes 

Peng Gao, PhD, assistant professor of EOH, SPH
Meng Wang, PhD, assistant professor of CEE, SSOE

Industrial waste gasses containing chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) contribute significantly to CO2 emissions and air pollution, causing adverse health effects and forming smog. Traditional waste gas treatments are often energy- and chemical-intensive, generate hazardous waste, and have a heavy environmental footprint. Enzyme-mediated biochemical reactions have the potential to sustainably treat waste gas emissions, but their direct application is limited due to low stability and short longevity under harsh waste gas environments. In this proposed study, a novel biomimetic silica will be developed to co-immobilize CO2 and CVOC treatment enzymes to improve stability, longevity, and efficacy under harsh waste gas environments. 

Exploring the feasibility, governance, and public communication of biomining to advance inclusivity and environmental justice

Tina Ndoh, PhD, associate professor of EOH, SPH 
Meng Wang, PhD, assistant professor of CEE, SSOE
Elizabeth Pitts, PhD, assistant professor of English, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences

Electronic waste (E-waste) is a growing environmental concern. Biomining, which uses biological activities to recover metals from E-waste, offers a promising approach for sustainable mining of E-waste. However, it often lacks selectivity and specificity. To address this issue, this project proposes a proof-of-concept study to develop targeted bionanoreactors that extract specific metals, while also exploring the governance and public communication of environmental health risks and benefits of these technologies in a just, equitable manner. The team plans to use community-focused case studies to educate focus groups on the global environmental impacts of E-waste, the circular economy, and biomining technology. The project will pair the development of new technology with an understanding of the community’s questions and concerns, ultimately understanding how they might engage with the proposed technology.