Out of the Lab, Into the Field

September 23, 2022
Thad Scott
The environmental science and biology departments at Baylor University consistently produces high-quality research with insight into how environmental changes affect human health. Researchers can look at data from a scientific view and translate results into immediate information on human concerns. Because of the multilayered needs for contribution and interpretation, this presents opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.

Benjamin Ryan, Ph.D., is a Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Science. Dr. Ryan is a member of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine, World Health Organization Thematic Platform for Health Emergency and Disaster Risk Management Research Network, National Environmental Health Association and Texas Environmental Health Association. His work established the Public Health Addendum of the Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Cities, a tool that systematically supports strengthened planning and coordination among disaster managers and health workers.

Thad Scott, Ph. D., is a Professor of Biology at Baylor University, returned to his alma mater to lead the Scott Limnology Lab. Dr. Scott researches the reciprocal relationship between aquatic microorganisms and their chemical environment across spatiotemporal scales from populations to ecosystems. His lab is interested in applying limnology to understand general ecological patterns and processes in nature and how microbial biogeochemistry impacts human welfare through water quality.

Rebecca Sheesley, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science concentrating on understanding local to global impacts of atmospheric particulate matter. Her work on air quality spans several continents, with studies in Texas, California, the Upper Midwest, Scandinavia, China, South Asia and the North American Arctic.

Sascha Usenko, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science whose research interests include tracking the environmental transport and fate of anthropogenic contaminants in aquatic ecosystems, and the transformation and bioavailability of certain chemicals in the environment. Drs. Sheesley and Usenko have been awarded an $890,000 grant by the Department of Energy Atmospheric System Research (ASR) to examine the impact of urban pollution on thunderstorm activity.

These Baylor researchers discuss their work and share ideas about the connection between the environment and human interaction and ways to mediate change.

Would each of you give a brief overview of your current research and how it relates to environmental health?

Sascha Usenko: The environmental health work I do is making measurements of the atmosphere and looking at volatile and semi-volatile contaminants. By looking at these contaminants, we can determine how they move, the sources of those chemicals and how they might degrade in the environment. The platforms I use can be individual locations or larger-scale mobile facilities that allow us to make measurements while we drive all over Texas. This allows us to have more complicated experiments to look at spatial and temporal gradients.

Rebecca Sheesley:: I focus on atmospheric research and use a methodology similar to Sascha. I do aerosol analysis, particles in the atmosphere, and gas-based species. I use different types of measurements, and I do them in very different places. When working in urban areas like in Texas, I'm interested in human health, exposure and air quality to try and understand the sources of volatile, organic aerosol compounds in urban areas to minimize exposure and improve local air quality. My research in the Arctic concentrates on atmospheric aerosols and VOCs and is associated with climate change, as opposed to immediate human health concerns.

Ben Ryan: The work I am involved with is in public health system resilience and how environmental health systems can integrate to keep societies thriving before, during and after a crisis. Using Covid as an example, we tried to work out how to safely keep things going, allow the industry to keep thriving, and all those factors in society. That has dovetailed into helping launch a public health system resilience scorecard with World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. This project is plugged into evaluating food insecurity during the COVID-19 school lockdowns. We created a spinoff with a food system resilience scorecard, in which we've engaged stakeholders from the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, Food and Agricultural Organization, and various nonprofit and private sector entities from across the world, which was recently finalized, launched and endorsed by the United Nations.

Thad Scott: We study water, specifically the microbiology and biogeochemistry of lakes and rivers. Primarily, we're interested in how microorganisms respond to variations in elemental cycling and how they reciprocally influence those variations. Some of the important outcomes of our research are related to drinking water, such as how microorganisms scavenge oxygen from drinking water sources. Most recently, we've been working on the causes and consequences of harmful algal blooms that can be toxic to humans.

All your research shares a circular connection between environment, air, water and human interaction. How does each of you see the crossover between your own research with the work of other researchers in this conversation?

Thad Scott: Our team is interested in the way lakes interact with the sediments underneath them and the atmosphere above them. These interactions are cyclical, and ultimately involve humans because we use lakes as a source for all sorts of things, most importantly, for drinking water.

Sascha Usenko: Similar, I think, for some of the atmosphere work as these are systems that interact. With the urban studies, we're talking about populations of millions of individuals with susceptible populations to consider. This work has an interface of where the people are working, how they get to work, and how their individual activities are impacting their public health. That’s where the crossover can help them understand the pros and cons of some of their actions. Texas has an enormously high number of billion-dollar events due to climate change, and we have a lot of those activities that help drive climate change here, as well. So, it's a very similar type of concept.

Ben Ryan: I think that's where the intersection is. The work that Thad, Sascha, and Rebecca are doing is understanding that connection; how, then, does that inform environmental health specialists and people working private sector, in government or different industries, and on what standards do they need to comply with and what's an acceptable level of risk and mitigation. Part of the systems work we've been doing and applying has led to the public health system resilience scorecard. This resilience scorecard has been signed off on by all United Nations member nations and within those ten key essentials of resilience are ecosystem services. So, everything Sascha and Rebecca are doing plays into that and what Thad is doing with drinking water and recreational water. It comes down to a health system capacity, your ability to access food, medicines and the workforce. All these things come together and need to be thriving and complementary to make sure our society is as strong as it can be to deal with future shocks that are coming down the line.

What do you think about collaboration within Baylor science as a whole?

Sascha Usenko: I think of the Baylor science building as a collaborative group of departments. A lot of those departments seek to hire folks that can work across different fields, across different disciplines, and because we're a smaller institution, that's how we make ourselves stronger - by being able to collaborate and work together. If we all worked independently, we'd be less successful. I think everyone here has multiple collaborations, and collaborative research is often being funded. I do collaborative research and I enjoy it, but it's also where we're headed as far as science goes.

Rebecca Sheesley: We all each have our niche specialties. I'm on the environmental chemistry side of environmental health and air quality. I look for people who do environmental modeling, for example, to give context to the things that we measure. We collaborate with other environmental chemists to broaden our reach in terms of the types of things that we can look for. We also collaborate with people like Ben, who can give that last application to understand why we are interested in the bigger picture idea to connect the work that we do directly to human impact and exposure.

Thad Scott:: I'm in the biology department, so collaborating outside of biology for me is with people in the environmental science and geosciences departments. We have work funded by the National Institute of Health and I would never have access to that type of funding with what we do alone. We must have a toxicology and human health angle to the work and that requires collaboration. We study microorganisms that are potentially harmful to humans, but we're really interested in their ecology, why they thrive and why they live where they live. Our collaborators in environmental science explore the exposure side that causes risks to humans, and without those collaborators the research wouldn't be possible.

Can you share your thoughts on what it means to be a mentor?

Sascha Usenko: I absolutely love mentoring and I probably give too much of myself to my students. All my collaborators will probably nod on that one. I enjoy having an opportunity for them to better themselves and to find students who are willing to take advantage of that. For me, it's about science, scientific questions and conducting good science. I try to match a student's talent to their interest with high-end research. It is fulfilling to watch when they have success. We have a really diverse group and it's made our group stronger and better.

Ben Ryan: To echo what Sascha was saying, mentoring is something I really enjoy, as well. Helping mentor students and teach them the ability to think freely, treat them as peers, and really come out with an understanding of system-to-systems thinking. That is the focus of my area in environmental health sciences through getting students ready to transition into the workforce and come out as environmental health practitioners to strengthen that pipeline. By giving them the good science foundation that Sascha was talking about, they can go into the workforce, whether that be in the private sector, government, not for profit, they're ready to understand the systems impacts of any decisions or mitigation measures they apply to protect human health.

At Baylor, the heart of research is grounded in our mission, compassion for others, and a call to solve our world’s greatest challenges. Discover other conversations with faculty in cancer research, human flourishing, data sciences and materials science and engineering.
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