Rager receives $3 million Outstanding New Investigator Award from National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

April 3, 2024

Julia Rager, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, has received the Outstanding New Investigator Award (ONES) from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The R01 level award recognizes her groundbreaking work in understanding the health risks associated with wildland-urban interface (WUI) exposure to wildfire smoke. 

Julia Rager

Dr. Julia Rager

Wildfires pose a significant threat to public health globally, with their intensity and prevalence increasing year by year. Particularly vulnerable are regions situated at the WUI, where human settlements intersect with natural fire-prone landscapes. Despite this critical concern, the health impacts and quantified risks of wildfire smoke exposure at the WUI remain largely unexplored. 

Rager’s research aims to bridge this gap by investigating the complex and variable atmospheric exposures that occur during wildfires. Her team has developed innovative methods to measure harmful chemicals and resulting toxicity in simulated wildfire scenarios. These scenarios incorporate man-made materials commonly found in the WUI environment. 

The team observed distinct biological changes in lung cells when exposed to different wildfire smoke conditions. These changes are relevant to lung cell stress and hypoxia, shedding light on the mechanisms underlying pulmonary toxicity. Notably, recent molecular-based studies have revealed novel mediation pathways involving extracellular vesicles emerging mediators of human disease further linking cell stress and hypoxia to health outcomes. 

This award will enable Rager and her team to continue their vital work, advancing the understanding of wildfire-related health risks and ultimately contributing to public health guidelines.  

Over the years Rager has held close ties with the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions, the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology, and the UNC Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility. 

Rager says that she appreciates this award for a multitude of reasons, including the unique emphasis this award places on career development opportunities, as she is currently focusing on growing her lab and overall research productivity.

“I appreciate the five years of dedicated funding that supports my lab’s interest in wildfire toxicity and underlying disease mechanisms leveraging in vitro, animal in vivo and human clinical modeling,” says Rager.

Previous ONES award recipients at Gillings include Dr. Rebecca Fry (2010), Dr. Kun Lu (2015) and Dr. Jessie Buckley (2019). 

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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