Kaja Abbas, PhD
Assistant Professor

Social pathways of infectious disease epidemics

This research aims to improve public health policy and practice by incorporating social behavior into mathematical models of infectious disease spread and by providing a better understanding of how proposed health-related policies will work when put into practice. Additional information is available here.

Julia M. Gohlke, PhD
Assistant Professor

Traditionally the field of environmental health has focused on health outcomes associated with exposure to single chemicals.  More recently, large-scale changes in the environment such as climate change, urbanization, and land use change have been characterized by earth and physical scientists but have been largely unexplored by human health scientists. Our research program examines health outcomes associated with large-scale environmental changes across urban and rural landscapes. Using a combination of satellite-derived datasets and vital records, we have confirmed associations between mortality and extreme heat events and we were also able to detect an association between preterm birth and extreme heat events. Importantly, we were able to detect mediation of the association by rurality, suggesting persons in urban centers may be more at risk. To assess adaptation strategies in human populations, community engaged research is being conducted in underserved urban and rural communities in Alabama, where we have piloted a method for measuring individual level exposure using a small device attached to the shoe. 

We are interested in understanding how datasets generated in model species can be used to predict effects in humans.  The current methods for determining risk associated with environmental pollutants relies heaviliy on testing conducted in rodent species.  Chemicals are evaluated for neurodevelopmental effects through exposure in rodents and subsequent behavioral testing and pathology exams.  Compared to the neocortex of the primate brain, the rodent neocortex is relatively underdeveloped and this is thought to underlie higher order processes such as executive functioning present in primates but not rodents.  To address this translational issue, we have developed computational models to predict neuronal cell number in the developing rat, mouse, monkey, and human neocortex.  We examined the effects of ethanol on cell proliferation, differentiation, and death as a case study for use in assessing the risk of chemicals using rodent datsets to predict effects in humans. Currently, we are interested in expanding this work by linking molecular mechanisms to these models of cellular level processes.

The interspecies differences in cellular processes during neocoertical development are orchestrated by molecular changes.  Collaboratinig with Francois Guillemot’s lab, who produced transcriptomics datasets in several proneuroal bHLH loss of function and gain of function mice, we have been able to develop a gene regulatory network describing differentiation into glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons.  This work led to a broader application of network theory and pathway analysis to define hypotheses of the most likely molecular targets of environmental factors affecting disease processes based on publically available datasets from genetic association studies in humans and toxicology studies performed in rodent and other model organisms.  We are currently evaluating transcriptomic changes associated with early-life exposures to mixtures on later life outcomes using D. pulex as a model organism. 

We have evaluated seafood safety protocols used for re-opening fisheries following the Deepwater Horizon blowout.  After outlining a set of data gaps and recommendations for further state and federal testing, samples collected from fishermen were analyzed and compared to federal level testing.  Our most recent assessment of this data concluded there was minimal acute human health risk associated with seafood consumption after waters were re-opened for fisheries, although the potential long-term health impacts associated with the Deepwater Horizon blowout are still being evaluated. 

Kerry Redican, PhD, MSPH, MPH
Professor & Interim Department Head

Ongoing work using customized versions of the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).  The customized version contains sets of questions on behaviors related to substance use, violence, sexuality, nutrition, exercise, and bullying.  When applicable community data is compared to national YRBS data from the CDC.  Results from these surveys: (1) helps local communities decide resource allocation to reduce risk behaviors and  (2) provides important data for larger community health needs assessments conducted by local health agencies.

Ongoing work involving surveying parents to determine their perceptions of the extent to which their children engage in health risk behaviors.  Results from these surveys are used to develop and implement educational interventions designed for parents to better understand youth risk behaviors in the context of predisposing, reinforcing, and enabling factors.  

On going work assisting different communities implement the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF)  as a community health needs assessment strategy.  SPF is a comprehensive model and includes Assessment,  Capacity, Planning,  Implementation and Evaluation and represents a helpful approach to reducing substance use, misuse and abuse.   Interventions are developed and implemented  or evidence-based existing interventions are used to impact  risk behaviors identified in the assessment. 

Sophie Wenzel, MPH
Associate Director, Center for Public Health Practice and Research

Through the Center for Public Health Practice and Research, Ms. Wenzel conducts research and practice projects regionally, statewide, nationally and internationally. Ms. Wenzel's research and professional interests include maternal child and adolescent health, youth risk behaviors, international health, sexual and reproductive health, healthy eating/active living, community engaged research and participatory methods, and evaluation of public health programs. Ms. Wenzel's current  projects are outlined here.