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Getting To Know UIC SPH Researchers

Getting To Know UIC SPH Researchers

The UIC School of Public Health supports an exciting research enterprise that addresses individual, community, and population health locally and globally. Our work spans the lifecycle, diverse communities, and health services. Read on to learn more about the career paths of our featured faculty and how they are shaping the future of public health. 

 

 

Kirsten Almberg, PhD

Research Assistant Professor
Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences

When did you begin your career at UIC?

I actually started as a student in the Epidemiology and Biostatistics (Epi/Bio) MS program in 2010. I went on to complete my PhD in epidemiology in 2016. In the last year of my dissertation work, I began working with Dr. Robert Cohen on national studies of occupational lung disease, and in particular, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Once I completed my degree, I was hired as the team epidemiologist. My official title is research assistant professor in the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (EOHS).

How would you describe your transition from postdoctoral fellow to faculty? What was the most rewarding about the experience? What was the most challenging?

My transition onto the faculty after completing my degree was fairly seamless, thanks to coordinated efforts by EOHS and Epi/Bio staff. My degrees focused on environmental and occupational epidemiology, requiring many classes in both Epi/Bio and EOHS, so I knew most of the EOHS faculty prior to being hired in the division. The most rewarding aspect was the warm welcome and encouragement I received from my former professors as I transitioned into one of their colleagues. The most challenging aspect was mapping out a strategy to become an independent researcher. I have two outstanding mentors – Robert Cohen and Mary Turyk – who are helping me to develop my research and career goals.

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

I am particularly drawn to research that is at the intersection of public health and social justice. My driving belief is that where you work and live should not adversely affect your health, especially if there are regulations in place that are meant to protect you from harmful exposures in these spaces. To this end, my research has focused on agricultural drinking water contamination in rural counties in the Midwest and pregnancy outcomes such a low birth weight and preterm birth. My most recent work focuses on occupational exposure to coal mine dust and the development of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung.

What are some of the current projects you are working on? What are the preliminary findings thus far?

Currently, I am working on a national study of progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Coal mining has been in the news frequently since 2016 and recently we have worked hard to draw attention to the resurgence of black lung and progressive massive fibrosis among U.S. coal miners. Our colleagues at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) just published a report in JAMA which details hundreds of cases of this debilitating disease that were not found through routine surveillance. Our team at UIC, in collaboration with NIOSH, has described a substantial increase in PMF nationally among former miners, identifying over 2,000 cases since the year 2000. The only cause of this disease is inhalation of coal mine dust, therefore this raises concerns about dust levels and regulatory enforcement in U.S. coal mines. We are also working on a mortality study of U.S. coal miners which will be one of the largest of its kind.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding aspect?​

Meeting and talking to coal miners who have black lung, or are concerned about their exposures, has been one of the most rewarding aspect of this work. I feel lucky to work with so many talented people who are dedicated to reducing the burden of this disease among our nation’s miners.

The challenging aspects include constant grant funding cycles and juggling multiple projects at once, but these are important lessons to learn in academia.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in?

We are currently collaborating with NIOSH, the Department of labor, trade unions, and clinicians in our research on coal mine dust lung disease. These collaborations have stemmed from the unique nature of these diseases – we have a national surveillance system for black lung and miners with disabling black lung disease can be federally compensated, although this is often a litigious and lengthy process. Clinicians, lawyers, and lay advocates all play large roles in this process. Twice a year we present our research and its policy implications to all of these stakeholders and collaborators, including coal miners. We are also collaborating with international partners, including Australia, where we work closely with the government and coal mining union of Queensland.

What advice would you offer new researchers?

Say yes to all potential projects and collaborations! You never know which projects will really take off and lead to exciting avenues for future research. Also, strike while the iron is hot, as they say. In many ways, our work is inherently political and funding comes and goes with political cycles. Make sure to pursue all avenues of funding while they are available, even if it seems daunting to pull together proposal after proposal. You’ll want as many irons in the fire as possible when it comes to funding..

 

Saria Salah Awadalla, PhD

Assistant Professor

When and how did you begin your career at UIC? 

I began my career at UIC five years ago in August, 2012. I started as a teaching faculty in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and I have been in my current appointment since 2016.

Can you describe a bit about your career path to becoming an Assistant Professor?

I transitioned directly from graduate school to a teaching position at UIC. What I found most rewarding about teaching, especially at the graduate level, is the bidirectional flow of ideas. The students have taught me a great deal and I was always happy to share my expertise with them. Learning to teach in an online environment was quite a challenge.

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

For many years I have focused on the development of statistical methods for the analysis of highly-skewed data that tend to deviate from usual parametric assumptions. Over the years, however, as I have been exposed more and more to public health research and its challenges, my focus has shifted towards several related topics including causal inference, randomized trials, and the analysis of high-dimensional data.

What are some of the current projects you are working on? 

I am currently involved in a few funded projects that range in content area and include two clinical trials that involve both biological and psycho-behavioral outcomes. My main statistical research is currently focused on developing causal inference methods for continuous exposures – such as environmental contaminants (e.g., lead) – that manifest in a highly correlated way.

What has been the most challenging aspect on your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding? 

I have found that collaboration on scientific projects can be challenging mainly because, as statisticians,  we lack expertise in that particular subject area. But the iterative process of deciphering the scientific aims and working with investigators to identify an appropriate analysis strategy has been the most rewarding aspect.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

My collaborative engagements are quite numerous and range in topic areas from public health research, to psychiatry and even robotics. Some of my collaborations are with colleagues at SPH but a number of these projects evolved through my work with doctoral students and their advisers.

What advice would you offer new researchers?

Be proactive in seeking out research projects and don’t shy away from a challenge.

 

Jocelyn Wilder

PhD Candidate

 

 How long have you been at UIC? 

I began working on PhD in 2012

 What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

Infectious diseases, Maternal/Child Health Family Health, Reproductive Health, and Health Disparities

What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

I was interested in vaccinations and waning immunity of childhood vaccinations. I began examining adult immunization recommendations, individual predictors of immunization and how health system/providers’ characteristics facilitate vaccinations.

What are some of the current projects you are working on OR what are your goals for future projects? Any preliminary findings thus far?

I am currently working on my dissertation examining race/ethnic disparities in Tdap receipt among women with a Medicaid paid birth and if birthing hospital/facilities characteristics modify disparities.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

I am using vital records and Medicaid data from Louisiana. The maternal child health assignee was also interested in topic.

What advice would you offer other students for finding funding and carrying out dissertation research?

To definitely apply for grants and to start early so that you can take advantage of various grant cycles if needed.

Jyotsna Jagai, PhD

Research Assistant Professor
Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences

When and how did you begin your career at UIC? 

I came to UIC in August 2013 as a Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. Prior to coming to UIC I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Chapel Hill, NC

How would you describe your transition from postdoctoral fellow to faculty? What was the most rewarding thing about the experience? What was the most challenging?

The transition from postdoctoral fellow to faculty was exciting and overwhelming. It was hard to learn how to juggle the various responsibilities, teaching, mentoring, and research. I have been teaching the introductory environmental health course for MPH students since coming to UIC which has been one of the most rewarding parts of the role. Most students in our MPH program have not been exposed to environmental health. I really enjoying introducing students to these issues and having them realize how they relate to their own interest areas. The most challenging part of the role has been becoming familiar with the grant writing process. Since I came from a federal postdoc, I didn’t have much experience with writing grants and the process. It has been a steep learning curve.

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

My research focuses on how ambient environment of residence can affect acute and chronic health outcomes. I have two main areas of interest, one addressing the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on chronic health outcomes, such as cancer and diabetes and the other focusing on how environmental stressors, for example climate change, are associated with acute health outcomes, such as gastrointestinal illness. My doctoral work focused on seasonal patterns in gastrointestinal illness which lead me to realize that while our water supply is relatively good, compared those in developing countries, there is still much that can be improved. It also lead me to realize how disparate environmental pollution is in the U.S. which can lead to health disparities. My postdoctoral position allowed me to focus more on health disparities due to environmental exposures as I worked with a team to develop an Environmental Quality Index (EQI) on the county level for the entire U.S. This index considers impacts in five environmental domains; air, water, land, built environment, and socio-demographic environment. This has been an extremely useful tool in helping to understand some of the impacts of cumulative environmental exposures in a population.

What are some of the current projects you are working on OR what are your goals for future projects? Any preliminary findings thus far?

My current work has focused on assessing the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on various health outcomes. I have considered associations with cancer incidence and found that counties with poor environmental quality demonstrated a higher incidence of cancer cases—on average 39 more cases per 100,000 people—than counties with high environmental quality over the study period. Increased rates were seen for both males and females, and prostate and breast cancer demonstrated the strongest positive associations with poor environmental quality. This work demonstrates that focusing on single environmental exposures in cancer development may not address the broader environmental context in which cancers develop. I am interested in expanding this work further to consider cancer survival times as well as biomarkers for cumulative environmental exposures. In addition, I am working on a similar project to assess the impact of cumulative environmental exposures on diabetes outcomes.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding aspect?

I think the most challenging aspect of my research career thus far has been balancing the time between teaching, grant writing, data analysis, manuscript preparation, and life. I think the most rewarding thing has been developing new ideas and new collaborations. It has been great to see ideas come together and working with people who bring varied expertise and knowledge to a project.   

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

Building new collaborations is a process which takes time. Since I was new to the Midwest, I had a lot of people to meet, learn what their area of interest and expertise were, and if there would be a possibility of working together. I have been able to build some collaborations with colleagues in the School of Public Health, the College of Medicine, and also at the University of Chicago. Luckily, I have also been able to maintain collaborations with colleagues and mentors from my PhD program as well as my postdoc.

What advice would you offer new researchers?

I think the advice I would offer new researchers is to be patient and thoughtful. I have come to realize how building collaborations, developing project ideas, and having proposals funded all take a lot of time and cannot be rushed.

 

 

PIerre Leger, PhD

Associate Professor, Health Policy & Administration

When and how did you begin your career at UIC? 

I began my career at UIC in August of last year. Prior to moving to Chicago and joining UIC, I was an Associate Professor at HEC Montreal (the University of Montreal business school) where I held the Professorship in Health Economics for many of those years. As someone who studies healthcare markets, my research has always been more US rather than Canada focused. So, after 15 years in the same institution, I decided to consider a move and the US seemed a natural fit. In the early stages of my search I saw a job posting from UIC. I had given a seminar at UIC’s IGPA a few years back and had enjoyed my time immensely. I reached out to the department, and the rest is history. 

Can you describe a bit about your career path to becoming a professor?

I began my career as an Assistant Professor in HEC’s department of Applied Economics after finishing my Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Western Ontario. In 2006-2007, I spent a year at the Paris School of Economics as a visiting professor. I have also held visiting positions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (2013-2014) and the University of los Andes in Santiago Chile (2015).

What areas of research interest you? What inspired you to focus on this specific research interest?

My research focuses mostly on physician markets in both theoretical and empirical frameworks. More specifically, I use game-theoretical and econometric techniques to examine how and to what extent physicians respond to financial incentives and competitive pressures when making clinical decisions. I became interested in how financial incentives shaped clinical decisions early on in my doctoral research. This came out of a basic observation that the traditional way of paying physicians (i.e., the fee-for-service system) rewards volume instead of appropriate care or desired outcomes. Understanding how payment mechanisms shape clinical decisions and how one might design payment mechanisms that encourage high-quality low-cost care has been at the centrecenter of my research ever since.

What are some of the current projects you are working on OR what are your goals for future projects? Any preliminary findings thus far?

I am currently working on several projects, three of which I will briefly describe. With co-authors from Arizona State and Los Andes-Chile Universities, I examine the effects of a team-based profit-sharing program known as gainsharing on cardiologists’ clinical decision, and show that they lead to cost savings without any observable differences in health outcomes. With another group of researchers from the University of Arizona, I examine how physicians vary in their practice styles and skills. Using random assignment of patients to physicians in Emergency rooms and a Unique data set which tracks all physicians and patients through time, we estimate each physician’s contribution to costs and also outcomes. We show that physicians within the same ER vary considerably in their practice styles and outcomes. Furthermore, we show that physicians who have more expensive practice styles do not yield better outcomes than their less expensive counterparts. We also show that physician skills vary across illness categories. These results suggest that there is room for simultaneous improvement on cost and quality dimensions and that randomization of patients to physicians may not be optimal. Finally, a co-author from the University of Texas at Austin and I are developing a model with empirical support that seeks to explain the important geographic variations in healthcare costs and spending across both publicly and privately insured patients which are not explained by corresponding geographic variations in underlying health, prices or outcomes. In our model, physicians make treatment decisions based, in part, on local market conditions which influence the relative lucrativeness of treating patients with different insurance. The goal is to bring the model to physician-patient level data where one can observe physician treatment decisions across different patients. Our model will also allow us to run a series of counterfactual policy experiments which might affect the aforementioned geographic variations in spending and outcomes.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your research career thus far? What has been the most rewarding aspect?

One of the challenging aspects of applied research, especially in the healthcare arena, is accepting how often private interests rather than sound research shape policy. The most rewarding part is working on topics which may ultimately contribute to better health.

What types of collaborations are you currently involved in? How did they evolve?

I am currently collaborating with researchers from the University of Arizona, Arizona State, University of Los-Andes Chile, Wharton at UPenn, UT Austin and Vanderbilt. All of these evolved quite naturally, either through discussion at conferences or during academic visits.

What advice would you offer new researchers?

My advice is simple: work hard and insist on rigor . Quality always trumps quantity.

Anything else you might like to share?

I have really enjoyed my time so far at UIC. I’ve met some great faculty, staff and students. And, of course, Chicago is a great city that I am anxious to fully explore.

 

Maria Argos, PhD

Associate Professor of Epidemiology

Examining health effects of toxic metals in drinking water

What are the health effects of arsenic from drinking water and other sources? That’s a question that Maria Argos aims to answer in her research studies. Argos examines the levels of arsenic in drinking water primarily in Bangladesh, and the associated health effects for people who live there. “There are naturally occurring elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water in many areas of Bangladesh,” said Argos, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. “Much of my work has focused on the health effects in adults — cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory outcomes related to various levels of arsenic.”

She’s also studying the early life health effects of arsenic exposure in children who live in Bangladesh. “We are following them into the future to look at patterns with blood pressure, diabetes-related markers, growth and other measures,” she said. Another of Argos’s studies on toxic metals found that people who eat a gluten-free diet may be at risk for increased exposure to arsenic and mercury, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological effects.

Gluten-free diets often substitute rice flour for wheat, rye and barley flours, and arsenic bioaccumulates in rice. “These results indicate that there could be unintended consequences of eating a gluten-free diet,” Argos said. “But until we perform the studies to determine if there are corresponding health consequences that could be related to higher levels of exposure to arsenic and mercury by eating gluten-free, more research is needed before we can determine whether this diet poses a significant health risk.” Argos is also co-investigator and program director for UIC and UI Health’s role in the All of Us Research Program, a historic national effort to advance the use of precision medicine by gathering data from at least 1 million people in the United States.

Any adult who has received care at UI Health’s hospital or clinics can participate in the study and so far, more than 300 patients have enrolled at the site, Argos said. “We have a very diverse patient population that has been engaged and interested in participating, which very much aligns with the national goals of the program to make sure underrepresented populations have the opportunity to participate in the study,” she said. Argos joined the UIC School of Public Health in 2014 after working as a research assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Argos teaches genetic epidemiology to master’s and doctoral students and advises Honors College undergraduates for their capstone projects. Students who are considering research careers should get involved as early as possible, she said. “Start meeting with faculty members and work with different faculty to get as much exposure as possible to different research areas and projects,” Argos said.

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