The Center’s Career Development Program, directed by Dr. Joseph Graziano, provides financial support, mentoring, and training for a highly selective group of junior faculty members whose current research interests complement the Center’s themes and disease focus areas. The goal is to foster their development as independent investigators in environmental health science, while furthering the overall mission of the Center and the NIEHS.
Selection of Candidates
In order to attract promising young investigators to the Center whose expertise complements that of current Center members, and whose research lends itself to the testing of new hypotheses concerning environmental components of human diseases, we provide $35,000/year of support to the research programs of each of two junior faculty members for 2 years.
Candidates are solicited from various department chairs, division heads, and other leaders who are asked to submit one to three names of possible candidates for support, along with brief biographical sketches and descriptions of their anticipated career trajectories.
The Executive Committee selects the candidates for support. The selection criteria used include the following: a) the appropriateness of the candidate’s research of interest to the mission of the Center and the NIEHS; b) an evaluation of a personal statement by the candidate; c) previous training; d) the likelihood that Center support and involvement will cultivate an appropriate NIEHS research proposal; e) a letter of recommendation from the nominating senior faculty member; and f) past research achievements.
Mentorship and Oversight of Career Development
Each junior faculty member chosen to receive Center support is guided by a three-member mentorship team consisting of Dr. Graziano and two other senior faculty members, one with expertise in the faculty members pre-existing area of expertise, and the other with expertise in an appropriate sub-area of environmental health sciences. Mentorship teams meet with the junior faculty members every four months to monitor research progress and assess the overall progression of their career development, and to offer advice as needed.
Activities of Awardees
Trainees are taught about the various K-awards available across the NIH, as well as R01 grant mechanisms and appropriate Study Sections for their applications. Trainees are also taught to comprehend research grant financial statements, negotiate all of the idiosyncrasies inherent to the Columbia system and become proficient at grant budget management.
They attend the Centers outstanding seminar series that combines a world-class series of outside experts in environmental health science with seminars by Center scientists. In order for the supported trainees to learn new skills and take full advantage of the resources provided to investigators by the CEHNM, each trainee conducts a short rotation in each of the facility cores.
In particular, the Exposure Assessment Facility Core offers an opportunity to learn basic skills concerning the appropriate collection and management of environmental samples. The Integrative Health Science Facility Core provides the opportunity to learn about collection of questionnaire data and biological samples, as well as data management. These rotations will allow trainees to appreciate the range of expertise available in the Center that could be incorporated into their own research; the Trace Metals Core Laboratory may also be of interest to a selected number of trainees.
Qixuan Chen, PhD, Assistant Professor in the MSPH Department of Biostatistics
Area of Research: Dr. Chen’s current methodology research focuses on developing novel statistical methods to analyze complex survey data. Each year, the United States incurs a great expense to conduct numerous national surveys to collect medical, health, and demographic information. These surveys provide rich data to examine the impact of environment on the health of the U.S. general population. Although such datasets are usually large enough to study the entire population, the sample size can be small for some subpopulations, e.g. ethnic-minorities. Thus, direct statistical analysis for these subpopulations can be problematic. To enable more reliable inferences in these small subpopulations, she has developed a Bayesian multilevel model by borrowing information from other subpopulations. This Bayesian model can be applied to health surveys with various sampling designs and can be extended to study time trends using repeated surveys. Dr. Chen plans to collaborate with Center members on studying environmental factors associated with racial disparities in asthma and allergic diseases, with the goal to lead to interventions that would improve the health of individuals with these conditions.
Diana Hernández, PhD, Assistant Professor in the MSPH Department of Sociomedical Sciences
Area of Research: Dr. Hernández’s scholarly interests center on housing and energy as social and environmental determinants of health. Drawing largely on qualitative and mixed-methods, her research examines intersections among the built environment (housing and neighborhoods), poverty and health with a particular emphasis on energy insecurity, a concept that she has spearheaded in the field of public health. A sociologist by training, she currently leads or collaborates on several research projects related to policy and structural-level interventions in low income housing (i.e., energy efficiency upgrades, cleaner burning fuel source conversions, capital improvements and financial restructuring in public housing, post-Sandy resilience among public housing residents and smoke-free housing policy compliance and enforcement in low-income multiple unit housing settings). These ongoing projects involve interdisciplinary collaborations that incorporate her expertise in qualitative and community-based research with quantitative methods that range from toxicological exposure assessments and large administrative datasets to longitudinal survey data. As these projects unfold, Dr. Hernández and her collaborators will accumulate the necessary empirical evidence to assess how poor housing quality and inefficient energy infrastructure affect the health and economic wellbeing of vulnerable groups while also evaluating the impacts of interventions set at the household, building and neighborhood levels.
The goal of the Pilot Project Program is to provide funding, access to Core facilities and intellectual support to research proposals primarily of junior faculty within and outside the Center that are devoted to the study of environmental components of three human disease categories: Neurotoxicology/Neurodegenerative Diseases, Respiratory Disorders, and Cancer. The broad objective of research in these areas is to improve the health of communities in northern Manhattan and provide educational and outreach services that allow effective prevention strategies to be implemented. This Center Pilot Project Program also addresses issues of concern to the communities of West Harlem, Central Harlem and Washington Heights/Inwood.
Senior Center investigators and members of the Internal Advisory Committee stimulate an interest in and aid in the development of pilot project applications among appropriate colleagues, collaborators, and departments. The Pilot Project Program continues to be advertised by other "democratic" means, e.g., through the Office of Grants and Contracts Monthly Bulletin. In addition, the program is advertised by e-mail and posted throughout Columbia University and LDEO two months in advance of receipt dates.
We have recently streamlined the scientific review process for pilot applications in order to expedite funding. The revised process includes a shorter application (3-5 pages) that undergoes a single review by both internal and external reviewers, who evaluate and score the proposal using NIH criteria. The projects are reviewed according to scientific merit and originality, use of core facilities, relevance to the Center's mission and themes, qualifications of the applicant and probability of generating future R01 funding. Based on reviewers’ scores and CEHNM priorities, final funding decisions are made by the Executive Committee within six weeks of investigator submission.
We have also recently announced a call for mini-pilot projects that requires only a one-page description of the project, for funding requests of less than $10K. Unlike the review process for pilot applications described above, these mini-pilots are reviewed on a rolling basis by the Executive Committee, which will make a funding decision in one week. This mini-pilot mechanism was developed to address time-sensitive research questions, like those raised in R01 critiques for a resubmission. We expect this new funding mechanism to further increase the effectiveness of our program and its impact.
Descriptions of recently awarded pilot projects follow: