Population Health

May 16, 2017

Initiative announces undergraduate Population Health Recognition Awards

Undergrad Recognition AwardThe Population Health Initiative has awarded Population Health Recognition Awards to 16 students participating in the Undergraduate Research Symposium for their innovative and well-presented population health research work.

This award was created in partnership with the Undergraduate Research Program and was open to students from all three campuses who are presenting at the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, May 19.

More than 100 applications were received for this award, which were reviewed by a panel of faculty judges from the Population Health Initiative’s executive council. The 12 awardees, their majors, and their projects are:

Paula Cieszkiewicz (Electrical Engineering), The Luminous Impact of Artificial Light Sources on Human Health

Urban and artificial lighting not only harms sleep quality but also has a disturbing range of negative impacts on the human body through disruption of circadian rhythms. Understanding the health impact of artificial lighting requires capturing how the human eye sees lighting at night.

By simply quantifying the intensity of artificial lighting in a way that is understandable and actionable, this research can empower consumers to take steps to improve their habits and reduce their exposure to artificial lighting at night that are particularly harmful to circadian timing. Simple changes for better sleep and circadian health include the installation of light shields and filters, reducing the number or intensity of lights in urban lighting, adjusting the color spectrum from highly disruptive blue light to lower lux red or orange lighting, and enabling individuals to make lifestyle choices that reduce exposures to disruptive light sources at night.

The health of our population can be improved with modifications to urban lighting and individual light exposure to support proper circadian timing. This ties in with the Population Health Initiative’s focus area related to diagnostics and critical assessment by allowing users and communities alike to understand the impacts of all forms of nighttime lighting on individual health. The focus area is about improving the understanding of the world’s health needs and the determinants shaping health outcomes. Studying the luminous impact of artificial lighting on human health centers on this focus area, and this research aligns suitably with the theme of population health.

Rose Fields (Pre-Engineering), Stabilization of Cellular Retinoic Acid-Binding Protein I (CRABP-I) for the Design of Protein Cage Based Vaccines

Diarrheal diseases like cholera, rotavirus, and norovirus are one of the top five causes of death worldwide, responsible for an estimated 1.4 million deaths in 2015 (WHO). They are the second leading cause of death of children under five, as well as a leading cause of malnutrition in children. Such diseases are usually spread through unsafe drinking water, a hallmark of resource-limited communities. They are especially deadly in hot climates, since the primary symptoms are dehydration and fluid loss.

The goal of our work is to create a vaccine against these enteric diseases, which would not only save lives, but prevent billions of cases of diarrhea, improving quality of life as well. While ultimately ensuring clean drinking water and sanitation in all communities is key to the elimination of these diseases, a vaccine could be delivered more quickly, hopefully saving lives while efforts are made elsewhere to implement those other things.

Our work also has implications outside of enteric diseases. A large problem in delivering vaccines to resource-limited places is that many vaccines must be kept cold until injection. But many of these communities inherently do not have freezers, meaning the biologics in the vaccines often denature before they are injected, defeating the point of vaccination. Our proteins have shown to be very heat stable, so if they could be applied to other vaccines, we could prevent biologic denaturing and increase overall vaccine efficiency worldwide. This project is an effort to save millions of lives worldwide.

Caleb Huffman (Political Science, Communication), On the Tipping Point: Drug Markets and Homicides in Seattle

Homicide can be conceived as spreading like an infectious disease but, unlike medical diseases’ natural causes of diffusion, homicide is diffused through society’s constructs (Zeoli et al, 2014). From racial and economic segregation to concentrated disadvantage, systemic forces “that can be tracked and altered” influence the clustering of homicides.

I combine a multivariate regression analysis by census tract and year from 2011-2015 of the whole City of Seattle with qualitative process tracing of specific neighborhoods to examine what I argue is the tipping point of homicide “hot spots”: illegal drug markets. Illicit drug markets do not by themselves increase homicides, but their presence in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods with the formation of social and spatial networks exemplified in gangs provides an economic incentive for the entrepreneurial spirit, creating competition with no formal mediator to resolve disputes. Consequently, homicide clusters can be tracked as they move throughout urban environments — and, with the proper diagnostic, treated.

The first step to treatment, however, is a reliable and repeatable diagnostic. I build a case that drug markets are the tipping cause and suggest methods of measurement, by identifying and examining their effect on violence in the city of Seattle.

Medina Khedir (Political Science), Changes in Air Pollution and Socioeconomic Status Over Time at the County Level, 1980 to 2010

According to a research cited by BBC, polluted air causes the deaths of 5.5 million people every year, inhalation of fine particles (PM2.5) being the leading cause. Some communities are privileged to have clean and healthy air. The Environmental Protection Agency, established the Clean Air Act in 1970 to set national standards for air pollutants that are harmful.

My research focuses on marginalized communities in the US, and seeing if they are at risk of being exposed to higher levels of air pollution (specifically PM2.5), than those who are privileged. The theme of population health, is upheld by three major pillars. Human health, environmental resilience, and social and economic equity. My research touches on all three points.

Using my research, I am observing that if marginalized communities are being exposed to higher levels of PM2.5, then they are at risk of facing numerous health consequences. In terms of environmental resilience, I am looking at PM2.5 levels since 1980 and comparing it to 2010, hence, observing how the environment has changed overtime. Lastly, I know that marginalized communities do not have the resources that will change their situation. But I hope to use my research, to give these communities a voice and influence policy decisions, that would allow for people, regardless of their socioeconomic status to be able to have access to clean and healthy air, and thus, have a right to live healthy life.

Jacob Kowalsky (Microbiology), Internal Deletion Induced Interferon Response to Influenza A

Together with my mentor, our research seeks explore the interaction of the innate immune system and influenza by analyzing the effect of deletions within the influenza polymerase genes on the virus’ inability to suppress the host interferon response. This project aligns with the themes of population health because influenza is found globally and poses a threat to both people who live in population dense cities and in rural areas near animals. Because influenza can be airborne and infect even the previously vaccinated, the flu can quickly spread through a population and pose a threat to a person’s health and ability to go to school or work. Farmer’s working in close proximity to birds or pigs can also become exposed to influenza that has recombined with avian or swine flu genes and can become seriously ill due to the fact the human immune system has not adapted to such influenza particles.

Understanding how influenza fails to suppress the innate immune system is relevant to this viral public health concern because it could lead us to a mechanism that explains how the virus first escapes detection before beginning the infection process. In the future, such a mechanism could lead to better antiviral flu treatments in which the virus could be combated before antibodies and the adaptive immune system must be depended on. An ability to more efficiently combat influenza would lead to improved health outcomes that transcend the country of origin or the social or economic class of the patient.

Jessica Lange (Biology), Compensatory Mutations Increase the Maintenance of Antibiotic Resistant Plasmids in Bacterial Hosts

The spread of antibiotic resistance in bacterial populations is a threat to the health of the global human population. Antibiotic use helps individuals fight off infections but causes bacteria to develop resistance that can render antibiotics ineffective in the future and decrease population health. It is essential to study antibiotic resistance in bacteria to prevent antibiotic use from becoming ineffective.

My research on plasmid-conferred antibiotic resistance aims to answer questions about why plasmids, that contain antibiotic resistance genes, persist in bacteria and what the underlying mechanisms are that can be targeted in future research to reduce the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Kayla Lowe (Social Welfare), Socioeconomic Status and National Health Disparities: The Moderating Role of State Policies

Prior research findings are inconclusive in regards to how adequately the welfare system addresses SES disparities in health. Many researchers suggest that an alternative public health intervention is needed. This research aligns with the theme of population health by examining the distribution of health outcomes throughout the United States and then including both socioeconomic status (SES) and social welfare policy indicators as intersecting independent variables. It subsequently analyzes how state-level SES acts as a determinant for health outcomes and it evaluates whether higher social service expenditures (i.e., welfare spending) effectively moderate this relationship. Furthermore, population health focuses on issues that revolve around three major pillars: human health, environmental resilience, and social and economic equity.

This research will examine multiple indicators for human health by interpreting both the physical and mental well-being of states. It will also assess environmental resilience by identifying how populations thrive in environments containing or lacking welfare support. Lastly, it will analyze social and economic equity by tracking trends in the relationship between poverty and health outcomes across several years. The existence of any significant recurring relationship between socioeconomic status and health outcomes throughout the lifespan demands evidence-based political reform. This research will be able to inform policy so that economic inequality within the healthcare sphere can be dramatically reduced, thereby addressing one of the foremost concerns in population health research. If successful, the United States could set a precedent for international health policy, improving the quality of life for countless people across the globe.

Christina Nhan (Bioengineering), Development of a Nanofiber Micronization Process for Water-Soluble Drug Delivery

My research with the Woodrow Research Group intersects two pillars of population health: human health and social and economic equity. I am primarily motivated by the fact that many biological, socioeconomic, and cultural factors increase women’s risk of acquiring HIV infections, especially in low-resource settings where women may be unable to negotiate safe sex. To protect against HIV acquisition, a prophylactic drug delivery platform that offers flexible dosing schedules would be an attractive option for many women.

I have contributed to the development of a fiber-in-fiber (FIF) drug delivery platform that addresses these requirements. The main benefit of FIF is that it uses two types of nanofibers to provide both immediate and prolonged drug release to protect against HIV acquisition. Currently, I am developing a strategy to improve the encapsulation of water-soluble drugs in the prolonged release nanofiber. Initial results show that my strategy has drastically improved drug retention from 0% to 90%, and further results from my research will allow the FIF system to deliver diverse classes of drugs to protect women from HIV acquisition.

Increasing the versatility of this platform has direct implications on population health because the FIF product can protect women from HIV, a lifelong chronic illness. Ultimately, this product provides women with choices to protect themselves when they cannot negotiate safe sex, choices to live healthier lifestyles without worrying about acquiring HIV. Ultimately, this product empowers women to break down socioeconomic barriers and pursue the goals and futures that they dream of.

Freddie Pastoris (Global Studies - Bothell), Household Air Pollution and its Repercussions on Health in Developing Countries

Almost 3 billion people, coming mostly from low-middle income countries, still rely on unprocessed solid fuels (wood, dung, crop, waste, kerosene, charcoal) as their main source of energy to fulfill some of their daily needs, such as cooking, heating and lighting. The prolonged exposure to this form of pollution, deriving from the incomplete combustion of solid fuels is strongly correlated to pneumonia and acute respiratory infections (ARI) in children and to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in women. Measured in years of healthy life lost, household air pollution is the single most important environmental health risk factor worldwide; being responsible for 3.8 million premature deaths per year, which accounts for 7.7% of global mortality, which is more than the toll from malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS combined.

I began this project with a preliminary stage of quantitative research to analyze the correlation between these respiratory infections and high exposure levels to particulate matter and CO present in the heavy smokes produced by wood-powered cookstoves. I then conducted a preliminary field study in Granada, Nicaragua, to evaluate the effectiveness of ongoing projects and to scrutinize the adoption levels of new cookstoves. Speaking fluent Spanish allowed me to collaborate with a Nicaraguan NGO that manufactures, sells and distributes alternative clean cookstoves. In July and August 2017 I will return to Nicaragua to expand on my preliminary research investigating the cultural appropriateness of different cookstoves in the matter of their design and of the marketing strategies supporting their distribution.

Riley Stockard (Bioengineering), Nadia Popovici (Pre-Sciences), Miranda Howe (Pre-Engineering), Yeast Biosensor with Estrogen-detecting CRISPR Transcription Factor for Low-cost Water Quality Screening

Our estrogen-detection project is a part of a larger vision by DAWGMA, an undergraduate research collective. DAWGMA aims at creating a yeast biosensors that can detect a panel of common chemical water contaminants, which will greatly benefit low income communities where water purity is unregulated and difficult to diagnose. Unlike conventional laboratory testing methods, yeast are inexpensive, stay alive indefinitely if dehydrated, and can be transported and multiplied easily. Our yeast will express visual reporters that do not require preparation or equipment to observe, such as color changes and fluorescence, to alert to hazardous chemicals.

This is a globally accessible solution to diagnosing water that is non-potable or unfit for agriculture, and should significantly improve the health of people near potentially contaminated water sources.

Ernie Tao (Political Science, Biochemistry), Characterizing and Explaining US Food Desert Movement between 2010 and 2015

This project is an interdisciplinary study that identifies and explains critical issues in domestic and international public health: food systems, food deserts, and food insecurity. This issue has received a great deal of attention recently due to the prevalence of US childhood hunger and obesity, and the international refugee crisis. Due to these crises governments have devoted large amounts of resources and efforts to combat this population health challenge. Adequate nutrition and foodstuffs are critical in ensuring healthy populations with a low disease burden, as a well-fed body is also an immunologically active body that is better able to fight off medical afflictions. Likewise, these issues transcend nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, and geographical location.

By combining STEM methods in statistical analysis, social science issues, and computer programming, this project can utilize publically available data to create a novel method in critiquing modern food policy and suggesting policy decisions. As a result, the policy-research gap due to the lack of communication between the policymaker and the research can be overcome by producing policy-targeted research. In particular, this study demonstrates the Population Health Initiative’s Area of Focus “Diagnostics and Critical Assessment” by producing a complete picture of population health as it relates to food deserts. Likewise, the relationship between food systems, social determinants of health, and human health are highlighted in the discussion of poverty and demographics to food deserts.

Kevin Zhou, Joshua Lee, Ruoyun (Brian) Gao (Microbiology), Quantitative Reverse Transcriptase PCR Detection of Organisms from Ribosomal RNA

Pathogenic organisms are a huge burden of disease on populations around the world. Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of parasitic and bacterial diseases that affect over 1.6 billion of the world’s most impoverished people in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, including 875 million children. They can cause severe pain, long-term disability, and are the cause of death for over 500,000 people per year. Diagnostic tests are the key to direct NTD control and elimination of infection. However, current diagnostic techniques, such as qPCR, are not always sensitive enough to detect early signs of infection, especially when there are only a few parasites in a sample.

This project aims to evaluate the sensitivity of RT-qPCR at detecting pathogenic organisms compared to that of traditional qPCR techniques. To evaluate RT-qPCR, we identified pathogens with a large burden of disease on the world’s population and acquired them through donations from medical institutions such as Harborview Hospital and the University of Washington Medical Center. In our experiments, RT-qPCR has been able to detect pathogens with more sensitivity and at an early cycle threshold than conventional qPCR. We anticipate similar results for other pathogenic organisms as well. If this trend continues, then it is possible that RT-qPCR could become the new gold standard in NTD detection by providing a more sensitive and robust method of detection than conventional methods, resulting in an early diagnosis and treatment for those with NTDs.

Please visit our funding page to learn more about these awards.