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Institutes of Energy and the Environment seed grants explore how environment affects health

Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment’s (IEE) Seed Grant Program fosters basic and applied research on strategic interdisciplinary topics that leverage faculty expertise across the University. Penn State College of Medicine faculty are represented on three of the 21 teams that were awarded seed grants in the 2021-2022 cycle.

Since 2013, the program has supported nearly 200 projects across 15 Penn State colleges and campuses. IEE awards the seed grants with the goals of developing new, interdisciplinary research teams to position them for high-impact research and external funding success while also pursuing novel research projects and promoting research development and mentorship between junior and senior faculty.

“This program allows College of Medicine faculty to collaborate with their Penn State peers to identify the impacts of the environment on human health and develop creative solutions to those challenges,” said Dr. Leslie Parent, vice dean for research and graduate studies. “It is another example of how the University invests in faculty development and high-risk, high-reward research programs.”

Projects featuring College of Medicine faculty:

Promoting Solutions to Climate Change and Health Challenges through Science-Policy Communications

Communicating climate change and health research to policymakers is one way of creating solutions with broad impact for the growing climate-health challenges. The proposed work involves recruiting experts from a series of workshops developing interdisciplinary solutions to the impact of climate change on human health in the built environment. A trained team will support these experts in synthesizing research related to those topics for policy audiences. These research syntheses will be disseminated to state and federal legislative offices. To optimize these efforts, research communication strategies will be investigated using a series of rapid-cycle randomized controlled trials. By increasing the reach of climate change and health research to those who can use it to inform evidence-based policy solutions, this work has tremendous potential to mitigate the health risks associated with climate change.

College of Medicine faculty participants: Rebecca Bascom, MD, MPH – professor of medicine and public health sciences; and Omrana Pasha, MBBS, MSPH – professor of medicine

A Data Science Approach for Scaling Synergistic, “One-Touch” Building Retrofit Solutions

The proposed research contributes to President Biden’s agenda for a just and inclusive clean energy transition through exploring opportunities for synergetic, “one-touch” building retrofit solutions. These can be used to address the intersecting energy burden and poor health outcome challenges of old, poorly performing low-income housing units based on a use case of Pennsylvania. Many of these units utilize wood frame construction techniques. The proposed approach will generate new evidence that can inform policymakers on strategies through which reduction of greenhouse gas emissions associated with building use can be achieved at scale while also unlocking co-benefits such as improved health outcomes. Achieving these targets at scale will also result in increased jobs in the clean energy sector.

College of Medicine faculty participant: Kristin Sznajder, PhD, MPH – assistant professor of public health sciences

Environmental Impact on Neural Circuitry Development of Psychiatric Disorders

Schizophrenia (SZ) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are devastating and life-long brain disorders. Yet the underlying causes remain elusive and treatment options are limited. The neurodevelopmental hypothesis of psychiatric diseases proposes that a brain defect is inherited or sustained early in life, but symptoms are not fully expressed until adolescence. Epidemiological studies support the vulnerability for SZ at the prenatal period. Genetic risks apparently play a major role in the etiology of SZ and can disrupt early brain development. Genetic studies have identified over 100 genetic variants associated with SZ. Despite substantial genetic risks, no single gene mutation accounts for >1 % of case frequency. Accumulating evidence suggested that environmental factors, such as heavy metals, affect early brain development and increase the vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. However, the adverse effects of long-term exposure to low-dose environmental contaminants on the trajectory of neural circuitry development are unclear. Especially, how environmental and genetic factors interact with each other and affect early brain development, thereby contributing to SZ/ASD risks, are poorly characterized.

Among the top genetic risk, the team will focus on RBM8A, a critical gene within the 1q21 region allele associated with SZ and ASD. Neuro-imaging and neuropsychological studies collectively supported 1q21 region as an important genetic predictor of brain structural changes and behavioral phenotypes. Yet, the molecular and cellular functions of RBM8A are unclear. To address these issues, the team has shown that mouse orthologue, Rbm8a, is required for NPC proliferation and neuronal differentiation. They further generated a Rbm8a conditional knockout (KO) mouse model and detected consistent defects on brain structures mimicking some features of SZ/ASD patients.

This proposed study will test the hypothesis that adolescent exposure to low dosage of a heavy metal, increases the vulnerability of mouse carrying Rbm8a deletion to abnormal development of brain connectivity and SZ-like behaviors. The primary objective of the project is to determine how heavy metal in water interacts with a SZ/ASD-risk gene and alters adolescence developmental trajectory of brain network in animal model and human stem cell model.

College of Medicine faculty participant: Alfredo Bellon, MD, PhD – assistant professor, psychiatry and behavioral health, and pharmacology

Read more about the Institutes of Energy and the Environment Seed Grants

Learn more about other teams’ projects in this Penn State News article

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