UNC SRP trainee discovers endless post-graduate possibilities through K.C. Donnelly externship experience

Eric Brown participated in an externship at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health over the summer

Inspired by the presentations given by K.C. Donnelly award recipients at the 2022 SRP Annual Meeting, Eric Brown, a UNC SRP trainee and PhD candidate in the Fry lab, applied for and was awarded a K.C. Donnelly externship in Summer 2023. Brown felt it would be a perfect opportunity to both broaden his research capabilities and explore potential postdoctoral research opportunities.

Eric Brown

Within the Fry Lab, Eric’s research focuses on how factors associated with climate change influence preterm birth and reduce gestational age. He also investigates biological pathways related to reduced gestational age and builds machine learning models to understand the effects of environmental exposures.

During his externship, Brown was mentored by Brent Coull, PhD, a biostatistics professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whose primary focus is exploring and modeling environmental exposure mixtures. Brown, Coull and his team worked together to determine the best way to model large datasets to better understand the effects of metal mixtures on gestational age and other omics

Brent Coull

Dr. Brent Coull

“We built a package to explore metal mixtures and their effects on DNA methylation, a biological process that can change the activity of a DNA segment without changing the sequence. We were looking at 850,000 regions of DNA, which is a high computational load,” Brown explained.

After developing and running the machine learning model, the results showed manganese as a driver of the effects of metal mixtures within placental cellular machinery (miRNA and gene expression). Brown’s findings identified significant interactions between metals which produce varying effects and illuminated the shortcomings of single metal exposure analysis more typically used.

Eric Brown in front of Red Sox signAdditional data presented an association between metal exposure and the disruption of embryonic development pathways which correlate to low birth weight and low gestational age. Ultimately, these results narrow the existing knowledge gap on how multiple metals can be analyzed simultaneously to answer questions about public health.

Academically, this externship showed Brown the vast number of opportunities open to him during and after his graduate studies. He enjoyed networking with Harvard professionals alongside his mentor, and appreciated the opportunity to explore the many biotechnology companies in the area.

Personally, Brown enjoyed exploring Boston and Cambridge as well as attending Boston Red Sox games and taking Boston Duck Tours. “It was a full circle life moment,” he expressed after being asked what it meant for him to receive this externship.

“I never imagined myself at Harvard because it’s so prestigious, and as a first-generation, low income, Black college student, those doors don’t open much for me to explore my dreams. This has taught me that anything is possible now and after I graduate,” said Brown.

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) values the inclusion and collaboration of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers (postdocs) within their program and recognizes the importance of promoting transdisciplinary and translational research among these individuals. K.C. Donnelly, PhD, was an SRP grantee who was extremely committed to his research, especially when it came to teaching and mentoring students.

As a result of his dedication to students, when he passed away in 2009, SRP created an honorary supplemental award in his name. The K.C. Donnelly award provides graduate students and postdocs with additional opportunities to further expand their research within other SRP-funded centers, government labs, or other agencies to answer questions about how the health of communities is affected by environmental contaminant exposures.

Director: Rebecca Fry, PhD
Deputy Director: Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena, PhD
Funding provided by NIEHS grant #P42 ES031007

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