Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility
Staff and Collaborators

Staff and Collaborators

Contact Us
Center Staff
Stakeholder Advisory Board
Advisory Committees

CEHS Staff Contacts

If you have questions about becoming a CEHS member or would like to be added to our email listserv, please contact:
Michael Sanderson, Associate Director

If you are an investigator at UNC seeking help with study design, project management, IRB, sample analysis, or use of equipment for projects related to cardiopulmonary disease, developmental disease, or environmental cancer, please contact:
Mary Watson, Scientific Program Manager

If you have financial questions related to the use of pilot project funds, travel reimbursements, or rapid response awards, please contact:
Todd Downes, Business Manager

Center Leadership:
Melissa Troester, Ph.D., Center Director

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 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.

Stephanie Engel, Deputy Director and Research Director for Developmental Disease
Dr. Engel, Ph.D., is the Deputy Director and 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.

Michael Sanderson, Associate Director
Michael Sanderson, MPH, is the CEHS Associate Director. 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.

Mary WatsonMary Watson, MSc, PMP, Scientific Program Manager
Mary Watson MSc, PMP is the CEHS Scientific Program Manager. Mary’s interests center on genetic and environmental risk factors for disease, particularly cancer. Mary has worked as a basic bench scientist in academic and federal molecular epidemiology laboratories, as well as served as the Project Manager for many state, national, and international research studies. Mary has experience managing both population and hospital-based research and has longstanding experience with project operations, research biospecimen collection and processing, and stakeholder management. Mary has formal training in Clinical Research and Project Management and looks forward to utilizing her broad research experience to advance innovative environmental research at the UNC CEHS.

Cyrus Vaziri, Research Director for 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 for 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, Director of the Community Engagement Core
Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., is the Director of the Community Engagement Core (CEC) in the Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility. Her research focuses on environmental health literacy, science communication and community and stakeholder engagement. In 2015, Dr. 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 Center for Public Engagement with Science, which enhances public understanding of current environmental science and health research and its relevance to daily life. She 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, Director of the Integrative Health Sciences Core and Pilot Projects Director
Jeannette Bensen, Ph.D., is the Director of the Integrated Health Sciences Core at CEHS and Pilot Projects Director. 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.

Kun Lu, Director of the Molecular Analysis Facility Core
Kun Lu, Ph.D., is the Director of the CEHS Molecular Analysis Facility Core. The overarching goal of Dr. Lu’s lab is to better understand health effects of environmental exposure and individual response by integrating the microbiome, exposome, omics profiling, and biomarker development. Dr. Lu’s lab is working on a number of important environmental chemicals ranging from heavy metals to pesticides, as well as others with significant public health concerns. The current emphasis is being placed on microbiome research and exposome mapping. Dr. Lu’s lab aims at answering how gut microbiome interacts with environmental exposure, how gut microbiome affects disease susceptibility, and how host factors crosstalk with microbiome to influence its response. Another focus of Dr. Lu’s lab is to map exposome for human disease, with the goals of characterizing all exposures over the lifespan via high-resolution mass spectrometry, understanding the health impact of the exposome, and designing strategies to reduce exposure-associated adverse effects.

Haibo Zhou, Director of the 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.

Todd Downes

Todd Downes, Business Manager
Todd Downes is the Business Officer for CEHS and splits equal time with the Water Institute, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Prior to working at CEHS, Todd was a senior grants and contracts analyst with the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and from 2002 to 2017 held numerous senior financial positions at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, OR. Todd grew up in Dallas, TX, and received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas. Currently, he is enrolled in the NC State University online MBA program, and while not studying, he is an avid golfer at the UNC Finley golf course. Todd’s role as Business Officer at CEHS includes purchasing and payments, reconciling grant and F&A accounts, preparing and distributing financial reports, process improvement, assisting with Center operations, and the full range of pre- and post-award grants and contracts management.

The CEHS Community Engagement Core 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.

Meet our SAB members

benitez-nellie_headshotNellie Benitez

Outreach Coordinator, Chatham County Public Health Department, Environmental Health Division

Nellie Benitez has been a Chatham County employee for 15 years. Nellie was named the Chatham County Public Health Department Employee of the Year in 2008. She has worked in the Environmental Health Division as a Community Social Services Technician since 2010. Previously, Nellie served as a board member for Smart Start. She currently works with two programs for the county; the N.C. Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (NC CLPPP) and Focus on Fathers. The goals of these two programs are to do outreach and surveillance in an effort to reduce the incidence of childhood lead poisoning and increase family and life-skills competencies in young fathers to prepare them for a life-long role of mentoring their children and their peers.

arlen-colemanArlen Penny Coleman

Housing Counselor, Community Care of NC, Northern Piedmont Community Care

Arlen Penny Coleman is a Community Health Worker and Housing Counselor for the Duke Division of Community Health. Her certifications include, but are not limited to, hospitality specialist, certified nursing assistant II, housing development professional, lead supervisor, and advanced housing counselor. Arlen is a CCNC Healthy Homes and Safety Initiative contest winner and has also won an Outstanding Housing Counselor award from the NC Housing Counselors Association. She is a member of the Franklin County Health Care Collaborative, the Lead and Healthy Homes Collaborative and the NC Association of Housing Counselors.

Stephanie Fisher, RN, MSN

Regional Child Health Nurse Consultant, NC Division of Public Health, Children and Youth Branch

Stephanie Fisher is a Regional Child Health Nursing Consultant working in the Division of Public Health, Children and Youth Branch. She provides consultation for the child health clinical programs and the Care Coordination for Children (CC4C) case management program in the south-central part of the state. This consultation includes technical assistance, training and resource information to health departments and local agencies. She assists with quality assurance and improvement strategies to address community level child health clinical and case management programs to improve program efficiency. Prior to coming to the state level, she worked as a Nursing Supervisor, Health Promotion Coordinator and a School Nurse. She has procured and implemented grants from the Kate B Reynolds Charitable Trust and the CDC. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Nursing in 1995 and her Masters of Science of Nursing in 2007 from East Carolina University. She likes to cycle and listen to live music! She also enjoys horticulture.

Sally Herndon, MPH

Director, NC Division of Public Health, Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch

Sally Herndon has been a leader in NC public health’s efforts in tobacco prevention and control since 1991. Responsibilities include management of the Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch and coordination of evidence based tobacco prevention and control in North Carolina. She helped build support for the 2010 law that makes all N.C. restaurants and bars smoke-free and worked with state and local partners to successfully implement the new law. Sally is Past Chair of the national Tobacco Control Network, 2011-2013. Her education and training include a BA in Psychology and Physiology from UNC Chapel Hill and an MPH from the Department of Health Behavior School of Public Health, University of North Carolina with a focus on policy and program planning. Her ongoing work involves working with state, regional and local partners to 1) reduce tobacco use by young people; 2) eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke; 3) help all tobacco users who want to quit; and 3) eliminate tobacco-attributable health disparities.

akiia-jamesAkiia James

Health and Media Consultant

Akiia James is an education specialist for Food and Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital. Her work entails training new and current staff on departmental policy and procedure in addition to a variety of foodservice topics. She teaches staff about therapeutic diets, food safety/handling,and she assists in ensuring nutritionals are correct on the patient menu. She is a self proclaimed foodie, wife, and mother to a toddler boy and infant identical twins.

Ed Norman, MPH

Program Manager, NC Division of Public Health, Environmental Health Section

Ed Norman has more than 25 years of experience working in public health and environmental regulatory programs. After earning a Chemistry degree from Duke University and his Master’s in Public Health from the University of Michigan, he became an Epidemiologist with the N.C. Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in 1990. Since that time, he has conducted lead investigations, analyzed blood lead and environmental data, published research on these data, implemented grants from the CDC, EPA and HUD and managed the state program for the last 20 years. Through the years, he has also administered the child care and school sanitation programs. In 2011, the Environmental Health agency was reorganized and now includes the EPA-authorized Asbestos and Lead-Based Paint Programs under Mr. Norman’s management. He’s also a pretty good old-time and bluegrass musician!

fawn-pattisonFawn Pattison

Communications Director & Senior Campaign Advisor, NC Child

Fawn Pattison is the Communications Director & Senior Campaign Advisor at NC Child. As Communications Director, she boils down complex policy issues to what’s really at stake for kids so North Carolinians can engage in critical public policy issues. As Senior Campaign Advisor, she collaborates with the Health Team staff members to prevent children’s exposures to environmental pollution that can harm health and development. She has a certificate in Public Health and an MA from UNC Chapel Hill, a certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University, and a BA from the University of Virginia. In her free time Fawn enjoys hiking with her family, reading long novels, pretending to be a gardener, knitting, and exploring North Carolina’s rich craft beer scene.

jon-petersonJon Peterson

Business Manager and cancer survivor, Wake Medical Center and Hospitals Surgical Services

After being diagnosed with Melanoma in 2007, Jon joined the UNC-CEHS to help educate others on the dangers of UV exposure. As a community member of the CEHS, he is very grateful for the opportunity to work with such a great organization to help prevent environmental exposures that effect many in our communities on a daily basis. Jon currently works as a finance and operations manager for WakeMed Health and Hospitals for Surgical Services in Raleigh, NC working closely with Physicians and staff. When he’s not working or volunteering, Jon enjoys the outdoors, coding or working on spreadsheets, and spending quality time with family and friends.

sarah-plentlSarah Boudreau Plentl, MS, RD, LDN

Supervisor, Wake County Health Promotion, Chronic Disease Prevention Section

Sarah Plentl has been working in Public Health for over 16 years. She serves as the Supervisor of Wake County’s Health Promotion Chronic Disease Prevention Section which houses several programs including the Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program and well as Tobacco Prevention and Control. Sarah is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Nutrition and is an ACE Certified Personal Trainer. Sarah’s passion for health spills over into her personal life as she loves riding her horse, coaching her daughter’s soccer team, and trail running with her son.

Jeannie Reardon, MPH

Child Care Health Consultant, NC Child Care Health and Safety Resource Center

Jeannie Reardon is the Child Care Health Consultant (CCHC) for the NC Child Care Health and Safety Resource Center, a project of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health (GSGPH), Maternal and Child Health Department. Through the Resource Center, Jeannie provides a variety of health and safety resources across the state: health education; training and technical assistance for child care health consultants (CCHCs) and other early care and education professionals; manages an information rich website; and contributes to the NC Child Care Health and Safety Bulletins and other publications. In addition, she sits on statewide health and early childhood advisory committees and task forces to advocate and promote healthy practices, healthy life styles, and safe environments for children and child care professionals.

lorisa-seibelLorisa Seibel

Director of Housing Services, Reinvestment Partners

Lorisa Seibel is the Director of Housing Programs for Reinvestment Partners, a nonprofit in Durham that works for economic justice and opportunity. Lorisa leads a CDC-funded Lead Poisoning Prevention and Healthy Homes Program to help families protect their children from lead, asthma triggers, and other hazards hazards. While at Durham Affordable Housing Coalition, she was Interim Executive Director, Lead Risk Assessor, Housing Counselor, and Community Organizer. From 1991-1995, Lorisa served as an elected member of Durham City Council.

Lauren Thie, MSPH

Environmental Program Consultant, NC Division of Public Health, Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology Branch

Lauren Thie is an environmental program consultant for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and serves as Principal Investigator for the Climate and Health Adaptation and Monitoring Program cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lauren has collaborated on public health projects in Kenya, Mali, Southern California, and Vietnam and is a 2009 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.


Stakeholder Advisory Board members include representatives from:

External Advisory Committee

The External Advisory Committee (EAC) consists of three 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.