Research groups

Interdisciplinary collaboration is fostered in our Center via Flexible Interdisciplinary Research Groups, or FIRGs, which bring together diverse combinations of basic, clinical and epidemiologic scientists to address emerging research areas in environmental health that fall into the following thematic groups.

Climate Change FIRG

Grandmother with adult daughter and grandchild riding bikes One emerging research focus for our Center is climate change, a problem of increasing importance in public health. CEHS researchers are finding that human-made pollutants, such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), significantly enhance isoprene oxidation as a source of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that can adversely affect health. This is of great public health importance since isoprene is primarily emitted from land-grown vegetation, and thus, is not controllable, whereas human-influenced emissions are controllable. Furthermore, with a warming climate and changes in land use, isoprene emissions are expected to increase into the future.

Climate Change FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. Jason Surratt, Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Contributing researchers:
Ilona Jaspers, PhD
David Peden, MD
William Vizuete, PhD
Jason West, PhD

Developmental Disease FIRG

pregnant Latino womanThe Developmental Disease FIRG is focused primarily on clarifying adverse pregnancy outcomes attributable to environmental pollutants. The prenatal period and childhood are sensitive windows for environmental exposure, so significant resources have been invested in better understanding this window of human susceptibility to environmental disease. The developmental disorders investigated by CEHS reseachers include:

  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • autism
  • growth/adiposity


Developmental Disease FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. Andrew Olshan, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Contributing researchers:
Julie Daniels, PhD
Stephanie Engel, PhD
Amy Herring, PhD
Michelle Mendez, PhD
Mark Zylka, PhD

Environmental Cancer FIRG

Grandmother with adult daughter and grandchild riding bikesCancer research has been an area of strength at UNC-CH and our Center builds upon the strengths in cancer research by emphasizing novel hypotheses and facilitating new projects in environmental carcinogenesis. This FIRG is particularly interactive with other center FIRGs focused on carcinogenic exposures (e.g. obesity, metal-induced disease, Superfund) and outcomes. For example, particulate matter, being studied in the Pulmonary Disease and Climate Change FIRGs, is a germ cell mutagen and environmental carcinogen. Environmental cancers researched at CEHS includes:

  • breast cancer,
  • colon cancer,
  • ovarian cancer, and
  • skin cancer.

Environmental Cancer FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. William Kaufmann, CEHS Director of Interdisciplinary Research and Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, UNC School of Medicine
Contributing researchers:
Shobhan Gaddameedhi, PhD
Marilie Gammon, PhD
David Kaufman, MD, PhD
Liza Makowski,PhD
Jun Nakamura, PhD
Andy Olshan, PhD
Charles Perou, PhD
Dale Ramsden, PhD
Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD
Norman Sharpless, MD
James Swenberg, DVM, PhD
Nancy Thomas, MD, PhD
Melissa Troester, PhD
Cyrus Vaziri, PhD

Metals-Induced Disease FIRG

baby_wbunnybowAdverse effects of environmental metals (e.g., lead, TiO2) and metalloids (cadmium, arsenic) are the subjects of this FIRG. For example, CEHS researchers are monitoring blood lead levels among certain exposed populations to further elucidate health effects of lead, which has long been recognized as a dangerous environmental pollutant with well documented effects on the central nervous system and neurodevelopment. CEHS investigators are essentially using human studies to suggest associations between exposure to these contaminants and a variety of environmental diseases and are then testing these in model systems to advance our understanding of mechanisms.

Metal-Induced Disease FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. Rebecca Fry, Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Contributing researchers:
Suzanna Drobna, PhD
Joanne Jordan, MD
Andrew Olshan, PhD
Mirek Styblo, PhD

Obesity FIRG

boy with adult bellyObesity has reached epidemic proportions in the US and represents both an environmental exposure and an environmental disease. The Obesity FIRG has addressed both ends of the exposure-disease continuum, focusing on factors that contribute to obesity (itself an outcome) and on how obesity influences metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. For example, CEHS researchers are studying the roles of physical activity and transportation infrastructure in shaping physical activity behaviors, and in turn, weight gain and metabolic risk factors.

Obesity FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, Associate Professor of Nutrition, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Contributing researchers:
Marilie Gammon, PhD
Liza Makowski, PhD
Barry Popkin, PhD
Whitney Robinson, PhD
Melissa Troester, PhD

Pulmonary Disease FIRG

boy_inhalerspacerAir pollution is a dominant driver of environmental disease in the US and worldwide. A primary focus of study in the Pulmonary Disease FIRG is on how air pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter (PM), and smoke affect respiratory and cardiac function and activity. CEHS researches investigate disease outcomes such as asthma, influenza, and heart attacks.

The leader of the Pulmonary Disease FIRG, Dr. Peden, is also the Director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology (CEMALB). Access to the CEMALB laboratory facilities enables CEHS investigators to extend basic science, mechanistic and other animal findings into human studies. This work, in turn, enables examination of gene-environment interactions and the testing of potential interventions in focused, proof-of-concept studies.

Pulmonary Disease FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. David Peden, CEHS Director of Translational Research and Director of the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology
Contributing researchers:
Charles Esther, MD
Rebecca Fry, PhD
Alan Hinderlighter, MD
Ilona Jaspers, PhD
Terry Noah, MD
Eric Whistel, MD, MPH
Haibo Zhou, PhD

Superfund FIRG

HAZMAT teamThe Superfund FIRG conducts cutting-edge research on how chemicals found at hazardous waste sites impact human health and the environment. Superfund FIRG researchers aim to better understand the human and environmental health risks associated with several of the highest priority chemicals regulated under the Superfund program, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), halogenated hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents, and heavy metals. The work of the Superfund FIRG researchers is also supported by the Superfund Research Program or SRP (P42-ES05948).

Superfund FIRG researchers

Leader: Dr. James Swenberg, CEHS Director, Director of UNC Superfund Research Program, and Professor of Nutrition, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
Contributing researchers:
Rebecca Fry, PhD