Putting Together the Pieces for Award-Winning Research

imageBy Dustin Renwick

People often invoke the Rubik’s cube as a metaphor for deep, multifaceted ideas. Although math supports the premise, the cube is still a toy with colored squares.

Human diseases, on the other hand, represent more intricate puzzles.

Take asthma, for example. May is asthma awareness month, and the disease affects an estimated seven million U.S. children.

“It’s a complex disease,” said Jane Gallagher, an EPA health research scientist. “We’re trying to understand the interplay between the genetic and environmental factors that we know are important to the underlying the pathology.”

To match the puzzle that is asthma, Gallagher worked with a diverse set of individuals from across the country that included experts from other organizations within EPA as well as academic researchers and post-docs – a team filled with “doers and problem solvers.”

Team members specialize in a range of aspects that contribute to childhood asthma, from genetics and behavior to indoor and outdoor air quality. With its collective expertise, the team examined relationships between environmental exposure, physiological markers, genetic susceptibility and asthma-related health outcomes.

Such a variety of knowledge meant the team could begin connecting the threads that run through the entire process of how asthma affects a child, a process called the “exposure-to-health-outcome paradigm.”

“We’re trying to integrate all those factors so the study is not so siloed or focused on only a few of the many factors that play a role in asthma,” Gallagher said.

Her team collected fingernail, blood, and urine samples to explore how genetic markers could relate to clinical indicators – for example, sensitivity to allergens or impaired lung function.

Peers in EPA’s Office of Research and Development voted Gallagher and her team one of a dozen Top Innovators during PeerOvation, an internal effort to recognize creative solutions and innovative ideas.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.