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School of Public Health - University of Washington - Spr/Sum 2009
BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER
TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Environmental and occupational health problems continue to be intellectually challenging, says Dave Kalman. Photo by Carol Martin.
When Department Chair Dave Kalman joined the faculty in 1978, the School of Public Health was only eight years old. He had just received his PhD in Chemistry from the UW, and he was set to work in industry. But then he got a call. He was asked to take a position in the Department of Environmental Health studying toxic chemicals in the environment. Kalman said yes, and the rest is history. Thirty years later, he is Chair of our department.
During Kalman's tenure, he's seen the breadth of opportunities offered in the department for training practitioners grow alongside an increasing interest in sciencebased environmental research as key to excellence. "The programs aren't and haven't been static," he explains. "They have evolved to make students ready for careers in public health as the field continues to expand." Both first-class research and practice are needed. Kalman sees tremendous value in these two sides of the same coin: offering courses and experience to meet the needs of students entering careers as practitioners in environmental and occupational health, and at the same time, expanding classes to teach and train students in basic scientific research.
The research being done in the department has many practical applications, too, insists Kalman. One example, he says, is in ergonomics; researchers are studying how fatigue and muscle activity, known to increase risks of workplace injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome, are linked to workstation design. Another example is in toxicology, where our researchers are studying what underlies chemical injury.
Environmental and occupational health problems continue to be intellectually challenging, says Kalman. "Problems don't lend themselves to a single approach," he explains, and so the field is inherently interdisciplinary. Professionals who come from a fundamental discipline like biology, engineering, or like he did, from chemistry, enter the field of environmental and occupational health sciences looking for ways to apply theory; they want to see an outcome and see how they can have an impact on the world, influencing the conditions people live with.
Despite the current economic climate, Kalman predicts continued opportunities for our department's graduates. For the public, the importance of what we do, what we work on as a department has never gone away, says Kalman. People have remained interested in the quality of their health, in the quality of the environment, and how the two interact. But he cautions that the opportunity depends on how well the "graduate is able to convert skills to make a livelihood. A person has to be prepared for change, and never feel like an education is complete."
Beginning July 1, Kalman will take advantage of a year-long sabbatical to continue work in Southeast Asia. In addition to ongoing research on environmental pollutants in India and Bangladesh, he has been invited to participate in research or teaching in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Taiwan. Kalman also plans to spend some time in Olympia to better understand the legislative process.
Marina Guizzetti. Photo by Jeff Frkonja.
CREATING HER OWN PATH
Marina Guizzetti, a research scientist in our department, says the "human perspective" motivates her research, even while her job has kept her in the lab working with cells for most of her career. Originally from the northern Italian region of Lombardy, she received her master's degree in Cell Biology from the University of Pavia and a PhD in Toxicology from the University of Milan.
In 1994, she moved to the US after accepting a postdoctoral fellowship in Professor Lucio Costa's laboratory. Her former academic mentor had put her in touch with Costa, who was studying molecular mechanisms that lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, one of the leading causes of mental retardation and birth defects.
Since then, Guizzetti has been studying novel molecular mechanisms involved in brain development and how they are affected by alcohol exposure. In particular, she has been researching the role of glial cells in brain development and how ethanol, by affecting glial cell functions, may profoundly affect the brain's architecture. Glial cells have long been considered the support system for neurons, the "glue" that holds them in place. However, in the last two decades, researchers have discovered new and important roles that these cells play.
For example, several metals accumulate in a type of glial cells called astrocytes, explains Guizzetti. Previous studies have shown that these metals, including lead, manganese, methylmercury, and organotin compounds, can alter astrocyte functions. The studies have also suggested that astrocytes may mediate some of the neurotoxic effects of these compounds during brain development and during occupational exposure.
Guizzetti says her visit to one of the clinics in the Washington State Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic Prevention Network (FAS DPN) made her research "personal." Since 1993, the FAS DPN has diagnosed more than 2,000 patients, and is linked to the UW Center on Human Development and Disability, where Guizzetti is a research affiliate. "You can see the real effects [of alcohol exposure]," says Guizzetti. One of the cases still resonates with her—that of an 18-year old boy whose life was severely affected by fetal alcohol exposure; he couldn't keep a job, couldn't perform tasks that are normally expected of someone his age, she says.
"Understanding the mechanisms involved in the developmental effects of ethanol can lead to early treatments in the form of dietary supplements for pregnant women or infants," says Guizzetti.
Research on fetal alcohol syndrome isn't published much in Italy, says Guizzetti, adding that drinking alcohol during pregnancy isn't much talked about either, not like it is here in the US.
She moved to the US, eager to be involved in her own research. Compared to her experience in Italy, in the US, she can "make her own path," Guizzetti says. A few years ago she began to investigate whether some of the neuro-developmental effects of ethanol may be caused by changes in cholesterol regulation during brain development. She received initial funding from the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute in 2003, followed by grants from the National Institutes of Health in 2005 and 2008.
In addition to her research, she regularly mentors graduate students and gives lectures in Costa's graduate courses on plant and animal toxins as well as the role of glia in neuro-toxicology.
Guizzetti advises students interested in research to be motivated, to find out what really interests them. Environmental health, she explains, is important to many aspects of life.
Jude Van Buren returns to her alma mater as Director of Environmental Health & Safety. Photo by Sarah Fisher.
In May, Jude Van Buren returned to her alma mater as Director of Environmental Health & Safety, a department at the UW that supports and monitors workplace safety and health practices at the university. She brings with her a wealth of experience, a passion for applied public health, and a philosophy that underlies her work: public health is about education.
In 1973, Van Buren received her associate's degree in nursing. She then was a Peace Corps public health nurse in Ecuador and Paraguay, where she learned about the need for sanitation and the importance of environmental health. She returned to the US and started the DEOHS bachelor's program in Environmental Health. She said her experience as an undergraduate in our department and background in nursing influenced her interest in applied public health. She went on to receive a master's and then a doctorate of Public Health degree from The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1997.
After graduation from the UW in 1984 and before moving to Maryland, she was a sanitarian for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. She worked in Maryland and then in Washington at the state health department, managing food safety programs, chemical and physical hazard programs, and performing epidemiological evaluations. Van Buren also taught environmental health at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Most recently, she was Director of the Division of Epidemiology, Health Statistics, and Public Health Laboratories at the Washington State Department of Health.
"It's been a journey on an interdisciplinary path," Van Buren said of her career. Each subsequent position, she says, has enabled her to "understand a bit more about how environmental agents, infectious or non-infectious, can impact the human body and how exposures can be reduced or eliminated."
She has also enjoyed working with "dedicated, curious, and creative people that really want to make a difference." Public health professionals, Van Buren explains, continually seek to learn and look for ways to improve the public's health, qualities that are "so essential in a field as dynamic as ours."
She explains that a background in both public health nursing and environmental health "helps you understand the public health needs from soup to nuts. Public health nurses typically work one on one with individuals and their families, such as helping sick children who are missing vaccinations or having diarrheal disease from drinking contaminated water." Working in environmental health, Van Buren says, is more of a "10,000 or 30,000-foot holistic prevention perspective." Environmental health interventions work to ensure clean drinking water and sanitation for whole communities—not just the individual. Her research addressing lead poisoning, an environmental exposure issue for children, combined these two disciplines and found that "good nutrition appears to act to impede the uptake of lead in the GI tract."
"I think public health is about education, trying to teach and trying to spread the word about what causes illness and disease, and how to prevent exposure and disease," says Van Buren.
She offers students this advice: "Be curious. Explore. Get experience. Get into an issue that interests you. Getting experiential knowledge either in a research project or out in the field working, you really can apply all of that science coursework that you've worked so hard to get through. The more that you can apply it, I believe, the more it will stay with you when you are out working in the world."