Yerby Fellows share research at annual symposium

Aisha Dickerson Yerby Symposium
Yerby Fellow Aisha Dickerson presents her research on ALS and diesel exhaust

March 2, 2018 – Exposure to diesel exhaust on the job appears to raise the risk of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease, according to Aisha Dickerson, a Yerby Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dickerson was one of seven Fellows who presented their research at the Yerby Postdoctoral Fellowship Program Symposium, held February 26 at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Other research topics discussed at the symposium ranged from the link between plant-based diets and cardiometabolic health, to the health impacts of childhood trauma, to the molecular processes that govern aging.

Named for Dr. Alonzo Smyth Yerby, an African American pioneer in public health, the Yerby Program aims to advance the intellectual and professional development of its Fellows. The program has trained more than 50 Fellows since its inception in 2001. It is directed by Christina Burkot, senior search and review officer, and overseen by Betty Johnson, assistant dean for faculty and staff diversity, development and leadership.

Meredith Rosenthal, senior associate dean for academic affairs, and Karen Emmons, dean for academic affairs, gave opening remarks at the symposium. Rosenthal called it “a gem in our efforts to diversify the faculty and invest in the next generation of public health researchers.”

Diesel dangers, aging, trauma, and more

Dickerson described how she and colleagues—including her mentor, Marc Weisskopf, professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology—used national data from Denmark to identify 1,639 patients with ALS. They then estimated the ALS patients’ exposure to diesel exhaust based on their employment history and compared that information with 100 others of the same age and sex who did not have ALS.

They found that anyone ever exposed to diesel exhaust through their work had 17% higher odds of getting ALS. The greater the exposure to diesel exhaust, the greater the risk.

Six other Fellows presented at the symposium:

  • Maria Andrée López Gomez talked about her work at Harvard Chan School’s Center for Work, Health and Well-Being. Her research has suggested that mental health issues could be a risk factor for occupational injury.
  • Carlos Giovanni Silva-García, who conducts research in William Mair’s lab in the Department of Molecular Metabolism, discussed his study of the role of a protein called CRTC-1 in lipid metabolism and how that impacts the aging process.
  • Loren Saulsberry, a Fellow in the Department of Health Policy and Management, discussed the impact of breast density notification laws on the use of supplemental breast imaging and breast biopsies. Some states require that women be notified if mammograms reveal that they “dense breasts,” because mammograms may fail to detect tumors in dense tissue.
  • Ambika Satija, who works with Department of Nutrition chair Frank Hu, talked about their research comparing the effects of healthy vs. less healthy types of plant-based diets on cardiometabolic health.
  • Özge Karanfil, a fellow in the Department of Global Health and Population, discussed her work to shed light on how changing guidelines for health screening tests—such as mammograms, pap smears, and PSA tests for prostate cancer—impact clinical practice.
  • Tia McGill Rogers, who does research on trauma epidemiology with Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, talked about the prevalence of “complex trauma”—trauma that is pervasive, prolonged, and often repetitive, and linked with undermining primary caregiver relationships—and how such trauma affects children’s health over time.
Yerby Fellows, from left: Dickerson, Karanfil, Satija, Silva-García, Saulsberry, Gomez, Rogers

Karen Feldscher 

photos: Sarah Sholes, Amanda Andreyev