Search Results for: Pongsiri

Women in Science: Montira Pongsiri

By Marguerite Huber

As part of Women’s History Month, I recently spoke with EPA scientist (and occasional Greenversations blogger) Montira Pongsiri, who studies the connections between environmental change and human health.

Dr. Pongsiri focuses on the benefits that healthy ecosystems provide, and how changes we make to the environment affect our health. Things that we do to change the environment, such as climate change and deforestation, can lead to changes in biodiversity, which in turn can affect the transmission of human disease. She is studying these relationships, and from that understanding, working with colleagues to identify tools and strategies to better manage and protect ecosystems and reduce risks to public health.

After studying neuroscience, Pongsiri went on to complete graduate work in environmental sciences and infectious diseases epidemiology at Yale. She was attracted to the discipline of science in approaching and solving problems, but I was amazed to learn that Dr. Pongsiri had not envisioned a career in environmental science until her later graduate school years. It was at that time that she met an environmental risk and policy professor who influenced her to change direction and bridge the connections between environment and human health. It didn’t help that the environment and public health programs were on opposite ends of campus.

In her dissertation work, she studied the tradeoffs between the use of pesticides and malaria. Coming to EPA out of graduate school, Dr. Pongsiri found that EPA challenged her to think about how science can be applied to solve real world problems. She enjoys working with a committed team to address issues at the intersection of ecosystems and human health through the Biodiversity and Human Health initiative, which is the first of its kind at EPA.

“People value good ideas, especially innovative ideas that come from a diverse set of perspectives that can help solve longstanding problems,” Pongsiri said. She believes that it is up to scientists to play a primary role in getting more girls involved with science. They need to be able to show how their work benefits society, from the individual to the community. Additionally, teachers have a responsibility to peak their interest, as her professor did for her. Had it not been for him, she would be working in a different field. Good thing, because we need scientists out there working on environmental health issues, especially because this is something that affects us all.

About the author: Marguerite Huber is an intern from Indiana University currently working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOJdjoFj7xw[/youtube] [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01ct81MMOII[/youtube]

Science Wednesday: Avoiding Lyme Disease: there’s an app for that!

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Aaron Ferster

Last weekend, I hopped the northbound train out of Washington, DC for New Haven, Connecticut, where I joined 500 or so other science writers to talk shop at the National Association of Science Writers annual conference. The conference was held jointly with the Forty-eighth Annual New Horizons in Science program, organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and hosted by Yale University and the Yale School of Medicine.

The two events are held consecutively, so that a couple of days of workshops and lectures on the craft of science writing are immediately followed by presentations by scientists eager to share their work with a receptive audience of science writers.

As you could imagine, a number of the presentations covered topics familiar to someone like me who’s “day job” is writing about EPA science and research. There were presentations on what scientists are finding in the aftermath of the Deep Water Horizon (BP) oil spill, case studies of the global climate change research, and even a presentation on green chemistry by former EPA environmental engineer Dr. Julie Zimmerman.

I even came across an example of EPA-related research completely unexpectedly. A feature story in the Fall, 2010 issue of the publication Yale Public Health highlights how Yale researchers helped to develop a Lyme disease “app” for iPhones and other popular Apple devices.

The app provides a map of infected tick density at a given location, providing a kind of user-friendly early warning system about Lyme disease risks. The program includes images of ticks people can use to identify different species—hopefully before picking them off their skin with a pair of tweezers.

Although EPA did not directly fund the development of the app, it has supported research integrating earth observation technologies, such as remote sensing, with field studies to model and map Lyme disease risk.

The development of the “app” is just the kind of research-based decision-making and information tool that EPA scientist Montira Pongsiri and her partners have been working to advance (and in Dr. Pongsiri’s case, blogging about) through EPA’s Biodiversity and Human Health Research Program.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is an EPA science writer and the editor of “Science Wednesday.”

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Science Wednesday: Biodiversity and Healthy Ecosystems Underpin Children’s Health

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Montira Pongsiri

I was recently part of a panel discussion at the American Museum of Natural History on the important roles biodiversity and ecosystems play for children’s health and well-being. While there, I had the opportunity to talk about EPA’s work linking ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health.

Although it’s often overlooked, if we want healthy children, we need healthy ecosystems. Natural ecosystems—forests, wetlands, grasslands—provide us with important “services” such as clean water and air, food, and medicine. And biodiversity underpins healthy ecosystems.

Here are just a few examples the United Nations has identified that make biodiversity important for children’s health. Biodiversity:

  • Plays a Crucial Role in Child Nutrition. Sustaining healthy ecosystems helps improve food security and child nutrition, enabling the production of foods, both wild and cultivated
  • Is “Nature’s Medicine Cabinet.” Plants are used to make medicines, soil microbes provide antibiotics, and certain animals are used to study how our bodies work and how to cure disease.
  • Keeps us Fit (and Happy). Want to reduce rates of childhood obesity, lower stress, and improve physical fitness? Get outside! A growing body of research suggests that early positive experiences with nature can benefit health and well-being in the long run
  • Protects Communities. The loss of biodiversity destabilizes ecosystems, weakening their ability to thwart the effects of natural disasters such as floods and wild fires.
  • Keeps Diseases in Check. Biodiversity loss and habitat destruction can increase the incidence and distribution of certain infectious diseases, including malaria which disproportionately affects children.

I’ve previously blogged about EPA work exploring the links between land use change, biodiversity loss, and Lyme disease transmission (for which incidence rates are highest among children).

We’re trying to answer a new question at EPA: how can we manage land to protect human health? EPA-supported studies are fostering transdisciplinary partnerships among ecologists, epidemiologists, urban/suburban land use planners, and local and state governments to plan for new, sustainable risk prevention/reduction strategies at the landscape and household scales.
Working at the interface of ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health requires a strong community at the international, national, state and local levels, and EPA is contributing new science for sustainable tools and solutions to achieve both healthy environments and healthy people—especially children.

About the author: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor. She has blogged about her work studying the links between environmental change, biodiversity, and human health for Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Science Wednesday: EPA Helps Celebrate the International Year of Biodiversity

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

As part of a series of United Nations (UN) events celebrating the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB), and to review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, the UN Environment Programme organized an event on April 30 at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

The event brought together scientists—including me—for a panel discussion on the important roles biodiversity and ecosystems play for children’s health and well-being.

We discussed the implications of continued biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation for children, highlighting key concepts with case studies in Africa and Latin America. We also talked about actions we think would provide mutual benefit to both conserving biodiversity and protecting children’s health and well-being.

So what can be done to achieve mutual benefits for biodiversity and child health?

Erika Vohman, of the Equilibrium Fund, presented one great example from the Fund’s award-winning Maya Nut Program in Latin America. The program concentrates on helping rural women, acquire skills to produce and sell products made from Maya nuts they harvest from the rain forest.

The nuts are extremely nutritious, providing high levels of protein, fiber, calcium, potassium, folate, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, E, C, and B. Vohman’s team has documented a wide array of benefits from the program, including rising income levels, increased self-esteem and status for the women, food security for families, and better health and nutrition for mothers and their children. They even found an increase in infant birth weights.

The event gave me the opportunity to talk about EPA’s efforts to develop transdisciplinary studies linking ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health. One example, as I’ve blogged about previously, is our effort to explore the links between biodiversity and Lyme disease transmission (for which incidence rates are highest among children.) These studies are fostering partnerships among ecologists, epidemiologists, urban/suburban planners, and local and state governments to discuss scientific advances and new risk prevention/reduction strategies at the landscape and household scales.
It takes a community to engage in biodiversity and children’s health and to put results into action!

About the author: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor. She has blogged about her work exploring the links between biodiversity and human health for Science Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: A podcast of the event is available at: http://www.amnh.org/news/2010/05/podcast-childrens-health-ecosystems/. A brochure of key messages from the event will be publicized by partners and used during IYB, including for the General Assembly’s High Level Meetings on the IYB and progress towards the MDGs, and the 10th Conference of the Parties to CBD in Nagoya, Japan.

Science Wednesday: Biodiversity Loss Impacts Global Disease Ecology

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.
In this month’s Bioscience , we lead a team of ecologists, epidemiologists, an economist, and policy analyst on an article linking biodiversity decline and infectious disease transmission.

For the paper, the research team reviewed and compared seven case studies—malaria, schistosomiasis, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, enteric disease, and allergic diseases—and developed a typology of proposed mechanisms linking human health and biodiversity, from the level of genes to habitats.

What did we find? For one thing, the recent emergence and reemergence of infectious diseases appears to be driven by globalization and ecological disruption. We propose that habitat destruction and biodiversity loss can increase the incidence and distribution of infectious diseases affecting humans.

We think the article could have a major impact on our understanding of the relationship between biodiversity and human health, and the use of new environmentally-based strategies to protect both the environment and public health.

Protecting natural areas, such as national parks and refuges, is the focus of many conservation efforts, but this approach alone cannot prevent biodiversity loss. And since typically not very many people live near these areas, most people don’t realize how valuable they are.

We suggest that biodiversity protection may be just as important to people on a local scale, in their everyday lives, and that science-based management approaches can produce co-benefits for conservation and for human health.

Our paper is a truly interdisciplinary undertaking. While we have training in public health and conservation biology, our fellow contributors include ecologists, epidemiologists, an economist, and a policy analyst. As is the case with biodiversity protection, we believe that this interdisciplinary approach has multiple advantages. It allows us to explore biodiversity conservation, the history of disease, and to take an economic perspective (relevant to decision-making processes) on these disciplines.

The paper concludes with ways we think we can move forward in research and policy, but that will certainly involve more interdisciplinary work on our part. We’re looking forward to that!

About the Authors: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor, and Joe Roman, PhD, is a conservation biologist and a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont, Burlington. He was previously at the EPA as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Science Wednesday: A Visit to the Geo-VI Plenary

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

“I’ll never get lost again,” I exclaimed as I opened the box containing my new GPS unit, an early holiday gift from my folks. Now I can harness the power of coordinated satellites as I confidently venture toward my destination, forever settling the age-old argument over the efficacy of stopping to ask for directions.

It seemed fitting that my new toy arrived the same week the Group on Earth Observations, better known as GEO, held its 6th plenary meetings. Thanks to EPA securing the space, the gathering took place in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, just a few floors below my office.

GEO members, including some 80 governments, the European Commission, and 56 intergovernmental, international, and regional organizations with mandates in Earth Observation or related issues, are coordinating their efforts to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS.

The goal of GEOSS is to create a flexible network where all sorts of earth observations—from direct observations of temperature and other climate data, to networks of open-ocean buoys, and high-tech satellite imagery—are standardized, coordinated, and shared.

The end result will be kind of like the Internet, except instead of Facebook-like social updates, content providers will supply a wealth of earth observation data, providing decision makers access to an extraordinary range of information right at their desktops.

The potential benefits of such a system are enormous: improved understanding of environmental factors affecting human health, disaster reduction, integrated water resource management, ocean and marine resource monitoring and management, weather and air quality monitoring and management, sustainable land use, development of energy sources, and adaptation to climate variability and change.

The Plenary-VI meeting featured a large public exhibit area where delegates from across the world demonstrated their research efforts. My EPA colleague and fellow Science Wednesday blogger Dr. Montira Pongsiri staffed the US-GEO booth, sharing highlights of her GEOSS work exploring the links between biodiversity and human health.

Of course now that I have my own, personal satellite access, my favorite exhibits were those illustrating how GEOSS is harnessing high-tech satellite datasets and imagery. It was all very exciting, and I didn’t even need to stop and ask for directions on my way back to the office.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the “Science Wednesday” editor and a regular contributor. He is the lead science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

EPA and the Smithsonian: Partnering in a Land Use and Biodiversity Study

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

In March 2007, an agency-wide Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Smithsonian Institution (SI) was signed, recognizing a shared interest in collaborating to promote intellectual exchange and the advancement of education and outreach on a wide range of scientific topics.

One of the areas in which we have been working in partnership with the Smithsonian is in studying the relationship between land use, biodiversity, and human health. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s (STRI) network of tropical forest plots is being developed into a system of Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatories (SIGEO), which has and will continue to provide critical scientific data about how tree biomass and biodiversity are responding and adapting to increases in atmospheric CO2 and global warming. In addition to modeling the global carbon budget, we recognized that SIGEO serves as an excellent platform to explore the dynamics and mechanisms underlying the relationship between anthropogenic stressors, changes in biodiversity, and disease transmission to humans because the sites have been so well characterized ecologically. EPA and STRI are working together to inventory and monitor important animal groups such as vertebrates and arthropods that can play important roles in human disease transmission.

Why is this a timely research opportunity? Mosquitoes are medically the most important group of Diptera, both in the numbers of disease agents they transmit and the magnitude of health problems these diseases cause worldwide, and climate change is predicted to expand vector range and exacerbate disease.

Our collaboration will use appropriate temperate and tropical plots that are part of the SIGEO network to assess the status and trends of mosquito species populations over time and evaluate whether infectious disease transmission risk is being altered in response to changes in climate and surrounding land-use. CDC has also joined as a partner to evaluate collected mosquitoes for the presence of arboviruses of public health importance and identification of the vector species they are utilizing in distinct habitats. Comparison of the findings from this study with an ongoing CDC study of arbovirus presence in nearby Guatemala will provide a better estimate of the risk of human and animal epidemics due to movement of zoonotic arboviruses throughout Central America. Mosquito monitoring will also add new information to Smithsonian’s MosquitoMap, a new web-based, geospatially referenced clearinghouse for mosquito species collection records and distribution models.

EPA is working with STRI, CDC, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, and the Gorgas Memorial Lab in Panama.

For more information on EPA’s Biodiversity and Human Health activities, see:
http://www.epa.gov/ncer/biodiversity

About the author: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor.

Science Wednesday: Biodiversity and Lyme disease – In the Field

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Recognizing that there is a need for more scientific studies characterizing the mechanistic pathways linking social stressors (deforestation, habitat fragmentation, climate change), biodiversity, and human disease transmission, EPA developed a Biodiversity and Human Health research initiative to develop and sponsor long-term and pilot research projects.

The Biodiversity and Human Health research projects are the first of their kind at EPA, in subject matter and approach. The approach is interdisciplinary, involving ecologists, public health specialists, social scientists, and earth scientists. One unique part of the studies is that decision-makers are included in the research process, so that new findings of scientific knowledge can quickly be put into practice.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be making a field site visit to one EPA-sponsored research project.

Rick Ostfeld, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies is leading a project entitled “Mechanisms Linking Host Biodiversity to Lyme Disease Risk: An Experimental Approach” to investigate how differences in animal community composition affect Lyme disease transmission in Duchess County, NY.

People get Lyme disease by being bitten by a tick infected with the spirochete bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. Ticks acquire the Lyme disease bacterium by feeding on small mammals such as white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) and chipmunks that are already infected.

Not all mammals are equally efficient or competent at transmitting the bacteria to ticks when fed upon. In fact, white-footed mice appear to be the most competent animal host reservoir of Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S. So, the more white-footed mice that are in the forest, the greater chance more ticks will be infected, and the greater chance you have of getting bitten by an infected tick.

In a previous blog, I mentioned that forest destruction and fragmentation in the U.S. have been shown to reduce mammalian species diversity, and to increase populations of the white-footed mouse. Rick and his team will be manipulating the composition of small mammals across a variety of forest plot types to see how high and low levels of mammal diversity may affect Lyme disease infection rates among feeding ticks.

In a seminal paper, Rick and his colleagues proposed the “dilution hypothesis” to help explain how high biodiversity can decrease the risk of Lyme disease transmission. It predicts that infection rates for a specific pathogen (e.g. Lyme disease bacterium) will be lower in highly diverse host communities. Why? The “incompetent” reservoir hosts dilute rates of transmission between vectors (ticks) and competent hosts (white-footed mice). With EPA support, Rick’s team will be collecting and analyzing field data to help characterize the scientific mechanisms that can explain how different levels of biodiversity affect Lyme disease risk.

image of authorFor more information on EPA’s Biodiversity and Human Health activities, see:
http://www.epa.gov/ncer/biodiversity

About the author: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor.

NOTE: Tweet! Tweet!
Follow the action from our field trip. We’ll posting updates from EPA’s new research Twitter account: @useparesearch.

Biodiversity and Human Disease – How EPA is Studying the Connections

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Montira Pongsiri, PhD, MPH, is an Environmental Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor.

I was first associated with EPA as a STAR Fellow studying the risks and tradeoffs of using pesticides to control infectious diseases. Today, I’m an EPA scientist focusing on infectious diseases in the wider framework of ecosystem services, the direct and indirect benefits people derive from ecosystems.

The primary questions I am helping EPA explore are: What is the underlying mechanism of disease emergence, and do changes in biodiversity play a role?

Our research projects are unique in their interdisciplinary approach, involving ecologists, public health specialists, social scientists, and earth scientists, and also by including decision-makers early in the process to help ensure that new findings can be used to make better decisions.

photo showing two scientists checking opossum for ticks which are removed and collected to test for the presence of the Lyme Disease bacteriumAt one field site in northwest Connecticut, an opossum is checked for ticks, which are removed and collected to test for the presence of the Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi.

One area we’re studying is Lyme disease risk (chronicled previously by Melissa Anley-Mills and Aaron Ferster). Research partner Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies hypothesizes that a greater diversity of native mammal hosts could help decrease the risk of people getting Lyme disease. How? People get Lyme disease through tick bites, and ticks acquire the Lyme disease agent by feeding on mammals such as mice and squirrels. Not all mammals are equally efficient, or “competent,” in transmitting the disease agent to the ticks. So perhaps having a greater diversity of mammalian species, with their varying capabilities of transmitting the pathogen, could “dilute” the rates by which ticks get infected. Lower rates of tick infection equal lower risk of human infection.

There is also a connection between animal diversity and landscape condition. Forest destruction and fragmentation in the U.S. have been shown to reduce mammalian species diversity and to increase populations of the white-footed mouse—the most competent host of Lyme disease.

With the support of a new STAR grant, Ostfeld and his colleagues are testing this hypothesis by manipulating mammalian host communities in forest fragments and studying the effects on pathogen transmission rates.

When we better understand the mechanisms linking biodiversity and human disease through this and other research studies, we may be able to develop environmentally-based and behavioral approaches to both promote conservation as well as to reduce the risk of human disease – a win-win for environment and public health.

In addition to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, other EPA research partners include the CDC, Yale, NASA Ames, UCLA, the Institute for Bird Populations, Rutgers, and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection.

Science Wednesday: Tweet! Tweet! Chirping from the Field.

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the Author: Melissa-Anley Mills is the news director for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She joined the Agency in 1998 as a National Urban Fellow.

Usually I sit in a Dilbert-style cube-farm, a warm, calm, enveloping sea of beige, beige, and more beige. So it was a rare and truly delicious treat to be invited to tag along on a field visit. The mission was simple: help Dr. Montira Pongsiri communicate her biodiversity research examining the link between biodiversity, the abundance and composition of animals, and Lyme Disease risk. To do this, my colleague, Aaron Ferster, (who previously blogged about our trip) and I had to see the researchers in action. We wanted to bring this experience to others via the web, so we loaded up on the technologies that would help us do that, a blackberry for “microblogging” (or “tweeting” on Twitter), and still and video cameras.

This turned into an experiment for the communication crew – the first time someone had microblogged live to the EPA’s Twitter account from the field. The first challenge we encountered was, of course, technical: spotty cell phone service. Recording the time and saving tweets in draft mode until reaching cell coverage solved that. But the real challenge was keeping the tweets short and sweet. Twitter has a limit of 140 characters (including spaces!) for posts. But there was so much to say about what we were seeing: white-footed mice, voles, baby opossums, catbirds, warblers, thrushes and ticks, oh my!

So there we were in the forest, watching and learning, tapping away on the blackberry, capturing video and photos, and lending a hand to the researchers. You can see the fruit of this labor on EPA’s biodiversity web page. Here you can read the tweets, and see the slideshows. Soon we’ll post video clips, so stay tuned.

Let us know what you think, suggestions are welcomed. What you would like to see in future “Field Notes” or visits with researchers?

Hopefully, through the images you’ll get a taste of this exciting research. Maybe it will encourage you to consider an environmental career as a field researcher, maybe a science teacher could use this as a teaching module, but I hope one thing is clear to see, the passion and devotion that these researchers have to gather the scientific data necessary to protect the environment and public health