Research in Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences

Dr. Ellen Wells (Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences Graduate Program Director), conducts environmental epidemiology studies exploring how exposure to metals or endocrine disruptors impacts cardiometabolic and neurologic health.  Much of her work focuses on children’s environmental health and how early life exposures may impact health in later life.  She has conducted extensive work looking at the relationship of metal exposure during pregnancy with cardiovascular risk factors, including work which identified an association of lead exposure with blood pressure at very low exposure concentrations.  She has also conducted research related to metabolic and other health impacts resulting from children’s exposure bisphenol A and related compounds.  Her new projects focus on improving our understanding of the neurologic impact of occupational exposure to multiple metals among welders and smelters from Indiana and China.


Dr. Sa Liu’s research focuses on exposure assessment as it relates to human health, including three major foci: (1) Exposure assessment for occupational studies; (2) Exposure assessment and health evaluation for environmental studies; and (3) Identification and application of biomarkers for health studies via exposomic approaches.

Coming into public health research field from a combined background of chemistry, environmental engineering and environmental sciences, where she studied how chemicals were distributed, transported and transformed in the environment, Dr. Liu has a strong interest in how human health is affected by exposure to toxic chemicals and how to control this exposure. Dr. Liu’s early research addressed workers’ exposures to particulate matter and manganese in welding fumes, with emphasis on using statistical models to evaluate air concentrations and determinants of exposure, as well as evaluating the effectiveness of control strategies by taking mapping approach to incorporate spatial and temporal variations at the workplace. She worked as a safety and health engineer with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 2010 to 2012.

The primary emphasis of Dr. Liu’s research relates to how to measure exposure, both external and internal, and how to apply these methods in health related studies that could inform policy making or changes to mitigate exposure and reduce health risks. Her work involves evaluating chemical exposure not only by inhalation, but also from ingestion and dermal exposures in both occupational and environmental settings. The environmental media include air, settled dust, cosmetic products, food and water.

Dr. Jae Hong Park’s primary research thrust is to develop novel ways to assess and control exposures to aerosols in occupational and environmental settings. Producing and controlling aerosols are of enormous interest in virtually all fields of science, especially chemistry, biomedical and environmental engineering, and toxicology. In those fields, aerosolized particles are needed to study exposure to airborne materials and must also be controlled so as to be sampled or to prevent exposure. He has applied his expertise in the generation of aerosols by spark discharge to develop novel ways to study topics in industrial hygiene and toxicology. He has applied the spark discharge system for industrial hygiene purposes: 1) simulation of welding fumes; 2) control of bioaerosols; 3) fabrication of antibacterial air filters; 4) test of aerosol samplers and instruments. He has also applied the spark discharge system to toxicological research in partnership with toxicology faculty. His other research interests include developing a wearable personal aerosol/health sensor, a personal bioaerosol sampler and an assessment kit for skin and lung deposition, and a dynamic model for predicting indoor air quality and energy consumption in ventilated livestock housing.

Dr. Aaron Specht's  research focuses on the development, application, and understanding of exposure assessment for elemental and radiation exposures in environmental and occupational health studies. He has developed instrumentation capable of in-field or in-lab measures that utilize a non-destructive, non-invasive, and cost-effective elemental quantification method using x-rya fluorescence. This includes everything from measuring nail, bone, or blood to determine exposure to a human or in animal studies to measuring soil, ash, or air filters to determine ongoing exposures at particular sites. He has many interesting collaborative projects ranging typical studies in hospital settings around the globe to measuring condors on the cliffs of the Grand Canyon. His research interests are (1) Health and medical physics in exposure assessment studies in environmental and occupational health (2) Development of X-ray technologies for elemental quantification of samples such as blood, bone, nail, hair, soil, and others (3) Kinetics of elemental exposures in the body and interplay with the use of biomarkers in epidemiological studies and (4) Exploring novel biomarkers of exposure to elements and radiation for epidemiological studies.

Dr. Wei Zheng's long-term research goal has been to explore the occupational and environmental causes of Parkinson’s disease (PD) for better diagnosis, prevention and intervention. His group has more than 25-year experience in mechanistic investigation of manganese (Mn) – induced Parkinsonian disorders. With the support from NIH/NIEHS since 1994, he has conducted human epidemiological studies in workers who are occupationally exposed to Mn in working places such as among welders and smelters. For prevention and therapy, he has developed unique techniques to study Mn, iron (Fe) and most recently copper (Cu) distribution and transport across the blood-brain barrier and blood-CSF barrier. He used these techniques to depict the mechanism by which these metals get in and out of brains and how the disruption may contribute to the etiology of PD. By working with his collaborators on the field, he and his student supported by NIOSH training grant has extended the laboratory discoveries to search for biomarkers for early diagnosis of PD syndromes among welders and smelters. Most recently, Dr. Zheng has established the collaborations with Dr. Linda Nie to use her noninvasive neutron activation X-ray fluorescence technique to investigate the body burden of Mn, Pb and aluminum (Al) among workers and control populations.

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