By Cristine Hall
USC’s hub for environmental health sciences research has secured a key grant to continue its work in Los Angeles and beyond well into 2025.
The Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center received a five-year, $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences as it celebrates 25 years of research dedicated to reducing diseases and disabilities caused by environmental exposures.
The center, among the longest-running NIH-funded institutions at USC, is led by Rob McConnell, MD, an environmental epidemiologist and professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and of spatial sciences at the USC Spatial Sciences Institute.
“Environmental health research is a priority area for the Keck School and USC,” said Steven D. Shapiro, MD, senior vice president for health affairs at USC and interim dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This grant will help advance research that makes a tremendous impact on population and public health locally and globally.”
Founded in 1996, the center evolved to support multidisciplinary research partnerships; promote population, clinical and bench research with pilot funding; develop the next generation of environmental health science leaders; and engage and support communities seeking environmental justice, policymakers and other stakeholders with the best science available.
“This is a great achievement and the continuation of a tremendous asset for the department,” said Howard Hu, MD, MPH, ScD, professor and Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine. “It is a true testament to Rob McConnell’s skills as a scientist, administrator and strategist.”
The center has more than 70 members across Southern California conducting research on a wide range of environmental exposures on autism, brain development and brain aging, obesity, diabetes, liver and heart disease, and cancer.
“I’m proud to build on the stellar record of directors that have helped make USC one of the leading environmental health science institutions in the U.S.,” McConnell said. “I’m really excited about new research opportunities to understand the health effects of a broad array of exposures ranging from toxic environmental chemicals to climate change, and to develop a scientific foundation leading to prevention of these health effects.”
Here’s a look at a few of the center’s highlights:
The Children’s Health Study, launched in 1993, has grown to become one of the largest and most detailed studies of the long-term effects of air pollution on the respiratory health of children. More than 12,000 school children have been involved. Its findings have led to changes in state and federal guidelines to improve air quality standards and urban planning decisions.
The MADRES Center for Environmental Health Disparities formed in 2015 to examine the effects of chemical pollutants on pregnant women and their infants. In addition to conducting research, the center works to improve environmental literacy among parents and youth as well as share research findings with surrounding communities that experience health disparities.
Pilot Projects Program: The center provides junior faculty and postdoctoral students with starter funds for small-scale research projects to generate preliminary data in aid of securing additional funding. Between 2011 and 2020, the center awarded $1.4 million to 47 proposals; 72% of awardees were junior investigators. The return in new grant awards was almost $30 for every $1 invested in pilot projects.
Community Engagement: The center has established long-term working partnerships with community-based organizations across Southern California to build capacity of residents to leverage research and translate research into action. For example, investigators work with Pacoima Beautiful, a grassroots environmental justice organization, to monitor neighborhood air quality and increase understanding of the health effects of air pollution and other toxic exposures.
“Community engagement for our investigators is a two-way street,” McConnell said. “We provide scientific results that communities can use to develop policies to reduce exposure to near-roadway air pollution, lead, urban oil drilling and other toxic exposures. Communities alert us to problems that lead to new research.”