SPUR 2021: Disparate impact of poor air quality on ethnic minorities


Over the past decade there has been an increasing focus on the adverse neurological and cognitive effects of air pollution. Increasing evidence implicates chronic exposure to high levels of particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometer in diameter) and other air pollution in cognitive decline. Additionally, research suggests that air pollution leads to changes in brain structure. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s evidence neuropathological similarities to animal models of pollutant exposure, as well as to autopsy studies of children living in high-pollution areas. Air pollution exposure is associated with cardiovascular and cerebrovascular functioning and concomitant adverse effects on cognition, including progression to dementia. Prospective studies have identified inverse associations between amount of exposure over a given number of years with current cognitive functioning or decline in functioning. Cross-sectional studies also indicate that individuals, and especially older individuals, exposed to poor quality air demonstrate worse performance on objective cognitive measures relative to individuals with less exposure. Understanding how air pollution affects various groups, including ethnic minorities is paramount. In the coming decades, the proportion of elderly that are Hispanic in the U.S. will double or even triple. These facts point to the pressing need to better understand the interaction of air pollution, socioeconomic factors, health, and lifestyle on cognition and brain changes in an older Hispanic population. This project will collect state-of-the-art neuroimaging data, air quality data, and cognitive testing from a cohort of elder Hispanics.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. Applicants must be University of Utah students who identify in one or more of the following ways (defined by the National Institutes of Health): Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinxs, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

Student Role

Students will be involved in all aspects of this project. This project is a human subjects based project. This means students will be working to recruit participants into the study, shepherd the participants through the protocol, be involved with data collection, data quality checks, and data analysis. The project’s protocol involves deploying low-cost air quality monitoring devices at participants’ homes, collection of neuroimaging data, collection of cognitive testing, and for some participants collection of blood (though the collection is done by trained professionals at the MRI center). This is a state-of-the-art project to collect pilot data for a future NIH grant submission.

Due to the nature of this project, the need to access the resources at the Imaging and Neuroscience Center (INC), students will need to be local to the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, or within a commute distance.

The nature of the study also includes interacting with participants in their preferred language, which at times will be Spanish. Preference will be given to fluent and/or native Spanish speaking applicants.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

Students will be learning aspects of state-of-the-art human subjects research. Students will learn how to interact with participants. They will learn facets of neuroimaging data collection (MRI) and cognitive testing administration. Data collection is done with a Siemens 3T Prisma MRI at the INC. Data collected is high-resolution anatomic imaging and resting-state fMRI to calculate brain networks. Cognitive testing is done using the NIH Toolbox (deployed on an iPad). Students will learn how to process air quality data. Neuroimaging data processing will take place using state-of-the-art processing pipelines in a Linux and Mac environment. Students will learn how to processing anatomic images, and how to calculate brain networks. Students will learn how to score cognitive testing. Additionally, students will be exposed to statistical analysis. These opportunities lay the groundwork for the student to advance further and the gain the skills and knowledge if they decide to enter into a future area of study involving neuroscience, behavioral health science, neurology, biomedical engineering, psychology, or a related field.

Remote Contingency Plan

Currently, under the Orange Alert status for research, undergraduate and graduate students are permitted to work within the human subjects domain. Students will be provided with safety protocols regarding measures to minimize exposure to coronavirus. Students will be provided with necessary PPE. If there is a pause in data collection due to a University of Utah mandated pass in research, students will have the opportunity to work with pre-existing datasets to hone their skills with neuroimaging data processing.

Robert Welsh
Associate Professor

School of Medicine

I approach student mentoring by viewing students as collaborators on my projects. This allows students to take initiative and to excel with projects. During the mentoring process I take the opportunity to recognize teaching moments with the student. I provide an environment to allow students to understand the importance of independence, yet to approach a mentor when needing guidance with a particular problem. I work to ensure that a student has knowledge to make on-the-spot decisions, which are sometimes needed in human subjects research, while also knowing when to reach out to me for guidance. Given that, I also understand the utility of weekly meetings to ensure that a mentee does not feel any sense of abandonment on a project. Many of my prior students have greatly excelled and have gone onto prestigious education and career opportunities.