Pilot Projects

The Investigator Development Core (IDC) is the section of the MIEHR Research Center that funds other investigators to conduct small projects related to environmental health disparities research on mothers and their children.

The IDC supports training and professional development of post-doctoral fellows, clinical fellows, and junior faculty at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) and Texas Southern University (TSU), particularly those from health disparity populations, by mentoring them in developing their grant applications, working on their research projects, and using their results to work on other research to improve minority health and reduce health disparities.

As a former MIEHR pilot awardee, I continue to receive my mentors’ guidance as I navigate the publication process. The results of my pilot resulted in identification of topics that were important to the community, including men’s health. As a result, I received University funding to implement a men’s health fair and conduct focus groups to learn more about men’s perception of health seeking behaviors. I also served as a liaison between Houston’s newly formed African American Male Wellness Agency and TSU to implement the city’s first male wellness walk on the campus. The MIEHR pilot award afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with community organizations like Project Row Houses, local faith leaders, maternal health clinicians, and county environmental public health leaders. I have expanded TSU’s community partner network by recommending these partners for participation in community advisory boards and maternal health projects on campus.

Kimberly Pounds, PhD

MIEHR 2022-2023 Pilot Project Awardee, Texas Southern University

The funding from the MIEHR Research Center was instrumental in receiving an US EPA Grant, Advancing Sanitation Justice: Linking climate-exacerbated nitrogen, cyanotoxins, and parasites with reimagined sanitation infrastructure and services in African American communities. In this $1.4 million grant, we will examine and advance sanitation justice (equitable access, agency, and adaptive capacity) in two majority-Black communities: urban Mount Vernon, New York and rural Lowndes County, Alabama. Adequate sanitation reduces communities’ exposure to several contaminants in water and soil, including parasites and chemical pollutants.

Rojelio Mejia, MD

MIEHR 2020-2021 Pilot Project Awardee, Baylor College of Medicine

The IDC is directed by Dr. Michael Scheurer, Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at BCM and co-directed by Drs. Bhagavatula Moorthy and Dr. Philip Lupo, Professors in the Department of Pediatrics at BCM. Previously, Dr. Hamisu Salihu served as IDC Director through July 2023.

The MIEHR Research Center’s Pilot Project Program hosts an annual workshop, designed to offer prospective candidates an opportunity to exchange ideas with our community partners, previous awardees, and Center leadership and learn about the Program details. As a testament to the MIEHR Center’s commitment to mentoring, this workshop provides a pivotal steppingstone for those submitting pilot project applications that focus on environmental health disparities research.

MIEHR Pilot Projects 2023-2024

Disproportionate Bioaccumulation of Microplastics in the Placentae of Vulnerable Populations Correlated with Adverse Obstetrics Outcomes

Photo of Enrico Barrozo

Enrico Barrozo, PhD
Postdoctoral Associate
Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine | Texas Children’s Hospital

This project aims to identify underlying molecular mechanisms of environmental exposures at the maternal-fetal interface, with a primary objective of addressing perinatal health disparities. Core to this project is assessing the potential impact of microplastics in the placenta. Based on our work with polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) exposures during pregnancy, we hypothesize that microplastics will accumulate in the placenta, and high levels will be predictive of other toxicants including PAHs. We will test this hypothesis with the following aims: Aim 1. Utilize banked placenta tissue to quantitatively measure microplastic accumulation (polypropylene and polyethylene) and correlate levels with preterm vs. term birth in vulnerable populations; Aim 2. Utilize machine learning to uncover associations between microplastics levels, PAHs, Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), and preterm birth; and Aim 3. Assess gene expression changes associated with levels of microplastics and PAHs with high-resolution transcriptomics.

Racial/ethnic Disparities in the Impact of Climate-related Stressors and Fetal Growth-related Outcomes in Harris County, Texas

Photo of Wei-Jen Chen

Wei-Jen Chen, PhD
Postdoctoral Associate
Section of Epidemiology and Population Sciences, Department of Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine

This project seeks to evaluate the impact of climate-related stressors (i.e., PM2.5 and extreme heat) on racial/ethnic disparities in fetal growth-related outcomes using birth records from the Texas Department of State Health Services for Harris County, Texas, 2018–2020. Daily PM2.5 concentrations and mean air temperature at the census tract-level will be used to estimate exposures across the gestational period based on a mother’s address at delivery. Race/ethnicity-specific associations between prenatal exposure to climate-related stressors (i.e., PM2.5 and extreme heat) and alterations in birth weight will be examined. We will also examine whether extreme heat exposure modifies associations between exposure to PM2.5 and alterations in birth weight.

A Multi-level Approach to Assess the Role of Environmental and Social Factors on the Health of the Black Maternal-Fetal Dyad during Pregnancy: A Pilot

Kiara K. Spooner, DrPH, MPH, CHES
Associate Professor
Department of Family & Community Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine

Racial/ethnic disparities persist in maternal morbidity and mortality, with pronounced adverse pregnancy outcomes among non-Hispanic Blacks/African Americans. Mounting evidence suggests that the chemical and non-chemical environmental exposures may contribute to the enduring disparities in pregnancy outcomes. In this study we aim to assess and describe the social, physical, and chemical environmental exposures in the lives of adult Black/African American pregnant women. The findings from this study will contribute to an enhanced understanding of the multi-level environmental exposures at the individual- and neighborhood-levels contributing to reproductive health disparities among Black/African American women.

MIEHR Pilot Projects 2022-2023

Saving Black Mothers’ Lives Collaborative: A Black Feminist Approach to Addressing Structural Racism in Caring for Black Women’s Health

Photo of Carla Bailey

Carla Brailey, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
College of Liberal Arts & Behavioral Sciences
Senior Fellow, Barbara Jordan Institute of Policy
Texas Southern University

This project, the Saving Black Mothers’ Lives Collaborative, is being led by Dr. Carla Brailey who is a public sociologist trained in social inequality and urban studies. Dr. Brailey is an Assistant Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences and a Senior Fellow at the Barbara Jordan Institute for Policy Analysis at TSU.

Racial and ethnic disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality rates remain unacceptably large in the United States. In this project, Dr. Brailey and her fellow researchers will take a Black Feminist approach to frame Black women’s maternal care experiences to unmask structural racism affecting maternal and infant health and contribute further to scholarship on racial justice literature.

A mixed-methods research approach is utilized to explore structural racism factors and environmental stressors impacting Black mothers’ healthcare treatment and services, consisting of focus groups with Black mothers and conversations in “shared spaces” with Black mothers, community and faith leaders, elected officials, and health practitioners. This study will focus on Black mothers in the historic Third and Fifth ward community areas in Houston, Texas as their morbidity and mortality rates are unusually high. The overarching goal is to develop a Black Maternal Health Care Model to offer effective strategies for addressing structural racism obstacles to reduce the overwhelming health disparities in Black maternal morbidity and mortality rates.

Neonatal Exposure to Plasticizers via Cardiopulmonary Bypass and its Effect on the Immune System after Cardiac Surgery

Photo of Axel Moreira

Axel Moreira, MD
Pediatric Critical Care Fellow
Department of Pediatrics
Baylor College of Medicine

This project is being led by Dr. Axel Moreira who is a Pediatric Critical Care Fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at BCM. About 40 million tons of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are produced each year, as it is a widely used plastic polymer in medical devices. PVC is hard and noncompliant, requiring plasticizers, such as phthalates, to make PVC flexible and durable. The most common plasticizer used in medical devices is diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), which has shown to have significant side effects to the endocrine, liver, cardiac and immune system in animals and humans. DEHP and its metabolite monoethylhexyl phthalate (MEHP) are known to leach from medical device tubing causing significant exposure to newborns who require cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB).

The objectives of this grant are: (1) to determine whether levels of DEHP/MEHP associate with duration of CPB, (2) evaluate the impact of DEHP/MEHP on the development of the neonatal immune system, and (3) determine if a high Center for Disease Control Social Vulnerability Index correlates with unplanned hospital readmissions.

The Role of Mass Incarceration and Residential Segregation as Drivers of Black-White Disparities in
the Risk of Stillbirth

Photo of Amal Rammah

Amal Rammah, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Center for Precision Environmental Health
Baylor College of Medicine

This project is being led by Dr. Amal Rammah who is trained in environmental epidemiology and health disparities and is a postdoctoral research fellow at the BCM Center for Precision Environmental Health and in the Program for Population and Environmental Health Disparities.

This project seeks to understand the contributions of structural racism in the widening and persistent Black-White disparities in stillbirth in the United States, and in Harris County in particular, that remain largely unexplained.

Using data from live birth and fetal death certificates, race-specific rates of incarceration from local law enforcement authorities and neighborhood-level data from the US census, this investigation will examine the role of mass incarceration and segregation on Black-White disparities in stillbirth in Harris County, home to the most diverse metropolitan area (Houston) and the third largest criminal justice system in the nation. We will evaluate the impact of race specific mass incarceration at the neighborhood level on the risk of stillbirth and whether that impact differs between Black and White mothers. We will also examine the impact of neighborhood residential segregation on the risk of stillbirth and evaluate whether that impact differs between Black and White mothers. These findings will contribute to our understanding of how the different domains of structural racism and discrimination contribute to health disparities.

MIEHR Pilot Projects 2021-2022

You Are Where You Live: The Role of Neighborhood Disadvantage and Blood Metal Concentration on Inflammation in Children with Acute Chest Syndrome

Photo of Jahnavi Gollamud

Jahnavi Gollamudi, MD
Medicine – Hematology & Oncology
Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center
Baylor College of Medicine

Photo of Shani Anum

Shani Johnson Anum, MD
Attending Physician, Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers
Instructor, Department of Pediatrics
Baylor College of Medicine

This project is being carried out by Dr. Jahnavi Gollamudi who is a hematologist (a medical doctor who specializes in problems related to your blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic system) and Instructor in the Department of Medicine at BCM. Acute chest syndrome (ACS) is one of the leading causes of lung problems in both children and adults with sickle cell disease (SCD). It is possible that children with SCD who are exposed to heavy metals, especially those living in poor neighborhoods, are more susceptible to ACS. Children will be asked to volunteer to be in this study to determine if there are differences in blood levels of metals due to neighborhood disadvantage and understand if the metals affect inflammation in children with ACS.

Environmental Exposures with Cadmium and Lead in Children with Toxocariasis

Photo of Rojelio Mejia

Rojelio Mejia, MD
Assistant Professor
Pediatric Tropical Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine

This project is being led by Dr. Rojelio Mejia, an infectious diseases expert focusing on tropical medicine. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatric Tropical Medicine at BCM. Along with colleagues, they are seeking to unravel the role of outdoor soil exposure on ingesting metal and its relationship with the parasite Toxocara on children. Cadmium and lead are potentially toxic metals found in chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers are heavily used in Texas to promote food crop sustainability. Although there are many beneficial uses for chemical fertilizers, there are also known toxicities with the ingestion of these compounds.

This study will focus on the two metals that are contained in chemical fertilizers, including cadmium and lead, used in Southern Texas. The central hypothesis to be tested is that metals such as cadmium and lead that are present in soils exacerbate intestinal inflammation caused by exposure of children living in poor areas to the parasite Toxocara.

Identification of African Americans’ Perception and Prioritization of Environmental Health Issues

Photo of Kim Pounds

Kimberly Pounds, DrPH
Assistant Professor
Health Administration and Public Health
Texas Southern University

This project is being led by Dr. Kimberly Pounds who is trained in public health and health promotion and is an Assistant Professor in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at TSU. In this project, Dr. Pounds and her fellow researchers will use a mixed methods research approach (a combination of methods) that includes interviews of neighborhood leaders and surveys of residents, to identify their environmental health priorities, including those that impact maternal, infant and child health, in Third Ward, an urban African American community in Houston.

Survey results will contribute to the development of an Urban Public Health Innovations Institute (UPHI2) at TSU. The UPHI2 is being developed to create equity in health outcomes for African Americans and other populations unfairly impacted by social and environmental injustices through research, workforce development, education, and community engagement.