Julia Rager, PhD

Assistant Professor
Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering

About

Julia Rager is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) at the University of North Carolina (UNC)’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. The overarching goal of her team’s research is to unravel relationships between environmental exposures and health outcomes, with a focus on complex mixtures at growing prevalence in the environment. The Rager lab addresses this goal by coupling advanced in silico methods with molecular toxicology approaches to evaluate environmental mixtures. Dr. Rager has approximately 90 publications to date, spanning topics of air pollution, bioinformatics, dose-response modeling, genomics, epigenomics, high-throughput exposure and toxicity screening of chemicals, mixtures modeling, modeling of biological pathways, systems biology, and risk assessment. Exposures that the Rager lab works with include emerging contaminants, including wildfire smoke and PFAS mixtures, and other contaminants present in the environment captured through novel biomonitoring approaches. By better understanding relationships between exposures to these substances and resulting health consequences, her research team aims to identify strategies to alleviate the global burden of environmentally-influenced disease.

Major themes of her current research are detailed on her lab website (https://tarheels.live/ragerlab/) and include the following:

(1) Mixtures modeling to identify ‘bad actors’ in the atmosphere. A focus of her team’s research is to test the toxicity of complex mixtures that can form in the atmosphere, including wildfire smoke and pollutants in urban environments. A unique aspect of their work is computational-based evaluation of relationships between mixtures components and toxicological endpoints. These mixtures modeling approaches yield insight on which chemicals/chemical groups drive toxicity in complex air pollutant exposures.

(2) Evaluating extracellular vesicles as novel mediators of human disease.
Her team’s research continues to develop and expand capabilities surrounding extracellular vesicle technologies. They carry out isolation methods, based on solvent exchange, size exclusion chromatography, and/or protein-based pull down, to process biological samples and elucidate the roles of extracellular vesicles in cell-to-cell communication and disease outcomes.

(3) Translating computational exposure science and toxicology approaches into risk assessment and policy decision making.
A primary mission is to integrate data from next-generation technologies into the regulatory arena to better protect public health. The Rager lab team’s findings highlight the importance of regulating human exposures to chemicals based on the best available science enabled through integrated -omics assessments.

To implement these research aims, Dr. Rager feels passionately about (4) leading the development and dissemination of training resources for implementing computational research in environmental health. She has developed and launched several data analysis training initiatives aimed at supporting trainees in their development of computational skillsets now needed to meet the current demands of 21st century science. Specific examples include the launch of a new course titled ENVR 730: Computational Toxicology and Exposure Science, the organization of four hands-on coding workshops, and the development of TAME (https://uncsrp.github.io/Data-Analysis-Training-Modules/index.html), a publicly available online resource of training materials for data science in environmental health.

Dr. Julia Rager holds a primary appointment in the UNC Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (https://sph.unc.edu/envr/environmental-sciences-and-engineering-home/).. She works with Dr. Rebecca Fry and a team of scientists as part of the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions (https://sph.unc.edu/iehs/institute-for-environmental-health-solutions/) and the UNC Superfund Research Program (https://sph.unc.edu/superfund-pages/srp/). She also holds leadership and affiliations through the UNC Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine (https://www.med.unc.edu/toxicology/) and the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology (https://www.med.unc.edu/cemalb/) led by Dr. Ilona Jaspers.

Julia E. Rager, PhD in the Gillings News

Honors and Awards

Gillings Reearch Excellence Award
2023, University of North Carolina

Extramural Paper of the Month Award
February 2023, NIEHS

Extramural Paper of the Month Award
October 2022, NIEHS

Extramural Paper of the Month Award
September 2022, NIEHS

Teaching Innovation Award
2022, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

Scientific and Technological Achievement Award
2020, US EPA

Best Paper for Advancing Chemical Regulatory and Safety Evaluation
2019, Society of Toxicology

Best Paper for Advancing the Science of Risk Assessment
2018, Society of Toxicology Risk Assessment Specialty Section

Top 10 Abstracts
2016, 2017, Society of Toxicology Risk Assessment Specialty Section

Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology Junior Investigator Award
2014, American Journal of Physiology

Post-Doctoral Syngenta Fellowship in Human Health Applications of New Technologies
2013, Society of Toxicology

Graduate Student Fellowship – Novartis Award
2012, Society of Toxicology

George C. Bunker Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Professional Promise in Environmental Engineering
2011, UNC

Research Activities

- Computational Toxicology

- Mixtures Modeling

- Risk Assessment

- Exposure Science

- Molecular Biology

Key Publications

Extracellular Vesicles altered by a Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substance Mixture: In Vitro Dose-Dependent Release, Chemical Content, and MicroRNA Signatures involved in Liver Health. Carberry CK*, Bangma J, Koval L*, Keshava D, Hartwell HJ, Sokolsky M, Fry RC, Rager JE (2023). Toxicol Sci.

Wildfire Variable Toxicity: Identifying Biomass Smoke Exposure Groupings through Transcriptomic Similarity Scoring. Koval LE*, Carberry CK*, Kim YH, McDermott E*, Hartwell H, Jaspers I, Gilmour MI, Rager JE++.  (2022). Environ Sci Technol., 56(23), 17131-17142.

Wildfires and extracellular vesicles: Exosomal microRNAs as mediators of cross-tissue cardiopulmonary responses to biomass smoke. Carberry CK*, Koval LE*, Payton A#, Hartwell H, Ho Kim Y, Smith GJ, Reif DM, Jaspers I, Ian Gilmour M, Rager JE++.  (2024). Environ Int..

Development of the InTelligence And Machine LEarning (TAME) Toolkit for Introductory Data Science, Chemical-Biological Analyses, Predictive Modeling, and Database Mining for Environmental Health Research. Roell K#, Koval LE*, Boyles R, Patlewicz G, Ring C, Rider CV, Ward-Caviness C, Reif DM, Jaspers I, Fry RC, Rager JE++. .  (2022). Front Toxicol.

Cytokine signature clusters as a tool to compare changes associated with tobacco product use in upper and lower airway samples. Payton A*#, Perryman AN, Hoffman JR, Avula V*, Wells H, Robinette C, Alexis NE, Jaspers I, Rager JE++, Rebuli ME. (2022). Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol., 322(5), L722-L736.

Predictive modeling of biological responses in the rat liver using in vitro Tox21 bioactivity: Benefits from high-throughput toxicokinetics. Ring C, Sipes NS, Hsieh JH, Carberry C*, Koval LE*, Klaren WD, Harris MA, Auerbach SS, Rager JE++.  (2021). Comput Toxicol.

New Approach Methods to Evaluate Health Risks of Air Pollutants: Critical Design Criteria for In Vitro Exposure Testing. Zavala J, Freedman A, Jaspers I, Wambaugh JF, Higuchi M, Rager JE++. (2020). Int J Environ Res Public Health, 17(6).

Identifying attributes that influence in vitro-to-in vivo concordance by comparing in vitro Tox21 bioactivity versus in vivo DrugMatrix transcriptomic responses across 130 chemicals. Klaren WD, Ring C, Thompson CM, Borghoff S, Harris MA, Sipes NS, Hsieh J, Auerbach SS, Rager JE++ (2019). Toxicol Sci, 167(1), 157-171.

Epigenetics in chemical-induced genotoxic carcinogenesis. Chappell GA, Rager JE+ (2017). Current Opinion in Toxicology, 6.

Linking high resolution mass spectrometry data with exposure and toxicity forecasts to advance high-throughput environmental monitoring. Rager JE, Strynar MJ, Liang S, McMahen RL, Richard AM, Grulke CM, Wambaugh JF, Isaacs KK, Judson R, Williams AJ, Sobus JR (2016). Environ Int, 88.

Education

  • PhD, Environmental Sciences and Engineering (Focus in Toxicology), Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2013
  • Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MSEE), Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2010
  • BS, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pre-Medicine, University of Texas, 2008