About CEHS

About CEHS

The theme of the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility (CEHS) is translating interdisciplinary research on environmental health threats to improve public health in North Carolina.  CEHS facilitates research collaborations by funding university infrastructure to support scientific equipment, facilities, and other resources that can be shared among environmental health researchers. By pursuing shared research questions, CEHS can identify emerging issues that advance understanding about how pollutants and other environmental exposures affect public health and health inequities.

Our goals are:

  • To disseminate knowledge and technology across interdisciplinary groups of researchers in environmental health.
  • To foster outstanding translational research and outreach in three focus areas: Environmental Cancer, Cardiopulmonary Disease and Developmental Disease.
  • To respond to emerging environmental threats facing North Carolinians and the nation.

The Center is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and uses the NIEHS Strategic Plan as a guide for approaching environmental health research, with emphasis on serving the needs of North Carolinians. Leveraging the extensive resources available at UNC Chapel Hill and in the CEHS Facility Cores, the Center seeks to address state needs for environmental health Exposure and Fundamental Research across our three Research Focus Areas. The Career Development Program in the UNC-CEHS provides Training and Education opportunities for all Center members, but especially target new investigators. Since our state has a diverse population, economically and ethnically/racially, addressing environmental Health Disparities is crucial in the research and outreach initiatives of the Center. Most central to the CEHS mission is using Translational Science to move environmental health research from laboratory models-to-humans-to-communities, responding to our state’s needs through multidirectional Communication and Engagement that is led by our Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC).

Center Organization

Administrative Core

The Administrative Core of the UNC-CEHS provides administrative and scientific leadership, manages Center finances and resources to facilitate research related to our three focus areas, and supports activities in the Career Development Program, the Pilot Projects Program, Facility Cores, and the Community Outreach and Engagement Core.

Melissa Troester, Director

Melissa Troester, Ph.D., is Center Director. The Troester laboratory studies breast cancer and benign breast disease using genomic, molecular pathology, and epidemiologic approaches. Much of Dr. Troester’s research focus has been on understanding interactions between the environment and breast genomics. She is Co-Principal Investigator on the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), a study of breast cancer epidemiology and biology focused on understanding breast cancer disparities and she is Co-Leader of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Cancer Epidemiology program. She has extensive experience working in consortia, including the African American Breast Cancer Epidemiology and Risk (AMBER) consortium, the Breast Cancer Association Consortium (BCAC), and the Cancer Genome Atlas project. In the TCGA, she led analyses of benign breast genomics. A common theme throughout her work is integrating genomic data and molecular biology with human studies of breast cancer etiology and progression.

Jim Swenberg, Deputy Director

Dr.James Swenberg, Ph.D., DMV, is Deputy Director of the Center and past Director. Dr Swenberg’s long, successful research career focused on chemical carcinogenesis and toxicology, with an emphasis on studying the role of DNA damage and repair in carcinogenesis, developing highly sensitive assay methods for DNA and protein adduct research and improving the scientific basis of risk assessment. He makes extensive use of mass spectroscopy for biomarker studies. After a successful industrial and research institute career, he joined UNC-Chapel Hill as a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. In addition to his Department of Nutrition appointment, he is also a professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and is the Director of Curriculum in Toxicology. He is affiliated with the Department of Nutrition as a trainer on the Department of Nutrition’s NIH Training Grant. His work on oxidant damage is of great interest to the Department and he contributes research supervision and instruction to Nutrition graduate students. He is a member of numerous prestigious toxicology and pathology societies and serves on several science and editorial advisory boards.

Michael Sanderson, Research Program Manager

Michael Sanderson, MPH, is the CEHS Research Program Manager.  He oversees and manages administrative and research activities, including promoting and fostering new CEHS research collaborations, supporting research and programmatic activities, and encouraging pilot project development. His interests center on the coordination and translation of research to practice – creating and maintaining high quality public health services and environments. Michael’s professional experience has included work with local and state agencies as well as in the non-profit sector. He has served on and led many state level advisory teams and work groups advancing the health and health care of North Carolinians.

 Stephanie Engel, Research Director, Developmental Disease

Dr. Engel, Ph.D., is the Research Director of the developmental disease research theme for the CEHS. She has led multiple national and international studies of maternal and child epi/genetic variability in relation to prematurity, growth restriction, preeclampsia and gestational hypertension. Her research is at the interface of innate and exogenous exposures during the prenatal and early childhood periods, and how they work together to influence the development of the child. She has ongoing projects in the area of maternal and fetal genetic, epigenetic, and metagenomic variation and pregnancy outcome, and the relationship of prenatal environmental exposures with childhood neurodevelopmental impairments such as ADHD. Many of the environmental exposures she studies are over-represented in minority and low income populations, which leads to the potential for unique susceptibilities in high risk communities.

Cyrus Vaziri, Research Director, Environmental Cancer

Dr. Vaziri, Ph.D., is the Research Director of the environmental cancer research theme for the CEHS.  The Vaziri lab seeks to address two related problems in the area of environmental cancer: (1) How do neoplastic cells alter their genomes during carcinogenesis? and (2) How do pre-neoplastic cells tolerate the intrinsic DNA damage and replicative stresses associated with carcinogenesis?  Trans-Lesion Synthesis (TLS) is an error-prone (mutagenic) and damage-tolerant mode of DNA synthesis.  The Vaziri team has shown that TLS is pathologically-activated in cancer cells and confers tolerance of oncogene-induced DNA replication stress.  Thus, pathological TLS provides a new mechanism for sustaining viability of neoplastic cells while simultaneously causing the mutations that drive tumor progression.   Cancer cells depend heavily on DNA damage tolerance and mutagenesis to adapt and resist therapy.  Therefore, an important byproduct of the selective pressure for TLS-mediated DNA damage tolerance during tumorigenesis is emergence of chemoresistant cancer cells.  Pathological TLS represents a molecular vulnerability and an appealing therapeutic target whose inhibition will sensitize tumors to intrinsic or therapy-induced DNA damage.

Ilona Jaspers, Research Director, Cardiopulmonary Disease

Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D., is the Research Director of the cardiopulmonary research theme for the CEHS. She is a Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) in the Department of Pediatrics with joint appointments in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology as well as Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Dr. Jaspers has a long-standing interest in the adverse health effects induced by pollutant exposures. She collaborates extensively with investigators from UNC-CH and the U.S. Environmental Protection agency to conduct translational studies related to air pollution health effects. Research in Dr. Jaspers’ laboratory focuses on the mechanisms by which exposure to air pollutants such as ozone, woodsmoke, cigarette smoke, and e-cigarettes modifies host defense responses, using translational human in vitro and in vivo models. As the Director of the Curriculum in Toxicology, Dr. Jaspers also oversees the training and mentorship of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Kathleen Gray, Community Outreach and Engagement

Kathleen Gray, MSPH, is the Director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Core in the Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility. Ms Gray’s research focuses on environmental health literacy, science communication and community and stakeholder engagement. In 2015, Ms. Gray was awarded the Office of the Provost Engaged Scholarship Award for Partnership, one of UNC’s highest public service honors, in recognition of a longstanding collaboration with a regional environmental nonprofit and a county park to inform vulnerable populations about the risks of consuming contaminated fish. Within the UNC Institute for the Environment, she manages the Environmental Resource Program, which enhances public understanding of current environmental science and health research and its relevance to daily life. Ms. Gray has over 20 years’ experience conducting environmental health education with community audiences and assisting businesses and government agencies in making sustainable choices. Prior to joining UNC, she led a statewide assessment of NC’s recycling industry, advised over 300 businesses in expanding their use of environmentally responsible products and services, developed and evaluated educational materials for EPA’s voluntary environmental programs, and managed a community-focused environmental health internship program at Vanderbilt University.

Terry Noah, Director of Training and Career Development

Terry L. Noah, MD is Director of the CEHS Career Development Core.  Dr. Noah is Professor and Senior Vice Chair in the Department of Pediatrics, UNC School of Medicine. He is also Chief of the UNC Pediatric Pulmonology Division Dr. Noah is an investigator in the CEHS Cardiopulmonary Translational Research group and has led CEHS-supported research projects on the effects of diesel exhaust on respiratory viral infection, and a multidisciplinary project on acute smoke inhalation. His research focus in recent years has been on the effects of environmental pollutants on respiratory viral infections, particularly RSV and influenza; past research has also involved translational and clinical studies in cystic fibrosis and childhood asthma. He has had longstanding research funding from NIH and has served on multiple NIH ad hoc study sections.

Jeannette Bensen, Deputy Director

Jeannette Bensen, Ph.D., is the Acting Deputy Director and Director of the Integrated Health Sciences Core at CEHS. Her interests focus on the effect that genes and environment have on risk, severity and progression of cancer. Within molecular genetic epidemiology, her focuses include: inflammation, gene structure-function, haplotype, admixture and genome-wide association and gene-environment interaction analyses.  She has experience working with biologic specimens in the laboratory, counseling patients for genetic disorders and designing and developing population and hospital-based research studies.

Haibo Zhou, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Core

Haibo Zhou,Ph.D., is the Director of the Biostatistics and Bioinformatics Core. He is well-known for his biostatistical research in environmental statistics, outcome-dependent sampling, survival analysis, measurement error problems and reproductive epidemiology. Dr. Zhou has served as PI on four NIH-funded R01 grants on statistical methodology research in outcome-dependent sampling design. He has had outstanding collaborative experiences with researchers at UNC, NIEHS and EPA on important health studies. His outcome-dependent sampling research is focused on developing innovative and cost-effective sampling designs that will enable investigators to collect more informative samples at a fixed budget.


Rhonda Turner, Business Manager

External Advisory Committee

The External Advisory Committee (EAC) consists of five renowned environmental health scientists with expertise in toxicology, mass spectrometry, systems biology, genomics, pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, developmental disease, cancer, epidemiology and outreach. The EAC members, individually and as a team, provide expert opinion in areas relevant to the Center’s research and outreach activities. Members of the EAC are also called upon on an ad hoc basis to review pilot projects and other programs, as appropriate to their areas of expertise.

Stakeholder Advisory Board

The Center convenes a Stakeholder Advisory Board (SAB) twice per year to share emerging research, to solicit feedback on research and outreach applications, and to have SAB members share highlights of their work and identify important issues facing North Carolina residents. To facilitate greater dialogue and collaboration, we meet with smaller groups of SAB members on specific translational research activities.

SAB members include representatives from:

Center Membership

CEHS maintains a diverse and dynamic membership, including faculty from all ranks in Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Pediatrics, Genetics, Medicine, and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, among other University departments.

The criteria for membership in the UNC-CEHS are:

  • research interests relevant to CEHS goals;
  • current or recent funding (if established investigator); and
  • potential for funding (if junior investigator).

To maintain membership status, Center members are encouraged to:

  • develop/maintain funded research in an area of relevance to the Center’s mission;
  • show evidence of interdisciplinary collaboration in the form of grants, manuscripts, shared mentoring of graduate students, abstracts, posters, and other projects;
  • attend Center-wide seminars and meetings;
  • submit pilot project proposals in response to Center RFAs;
  • cite the Center Grant in any publication that had CEHS funding and/or utilizes our Facility Cores; and
  • collaborate with the Community Outreach and Engagement Core, when appropriate, to share environmental health sciences information with public health professionals and other community audiences.

CEHS members, faculty and staff listing

For questions about becoming a UNC-CEHS member contact, Research Program Manager, Michael Sanderson.