This August, the NIH Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program announced the recipients of the most recent cycles of the Opportunities and Infrastructure Fund (OIF) grants. Two PROTECT researchers, Dr. Max Aung and Dr. Chieh Wu, each received two-year OIF grants to pursue research questions across multiple ECHO cohorts.

Dr. Aung was a former PROTECT Project 1 postdoctoral trainee at the University of Michigan and is currently an Associate Research Scientist at UCSF in the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. His OIF grant will investigate the impacts of endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, phenols, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on infant neurodevelopment. This builds on previous work that PROTECT collaborators Dr. Emily Zimmerman and Dr. Deb Watkins reported between phthalates and infant non-nutritive suck measures. Previous research has shown a link between environmental toxicants and changes in concentrations of essential bioactive lipid signaling molecules (eicosanoids) in pregnant women. These eicosanoids may be critical biomarkers of infant neurodevelopment. Using an innovative analytical framework developed and published in Nature Communicationsby the Project 1 team, Dr. Aung and his collaborators will assess the extent to which environmental toxicants act through these bioactive lipids to influence infant neurodevelopment. Dr. Aung will also make important innovations to this framework by evaluating different combinations and interactions of pollutants.

The project will require harmonization of data from the PROTECT cohort as well as the Illinois Kids Development Study (KIDS) and the Chemicals in Our Body (CiOB) study at UCSF. The infant neurodevelopment outcomes include the Non-Nutritive Suck measure developed by CRECE’s Dr. Emily Zimmerman, and an infant eye-tracking system developed by the IKIDS team.

Dr. Aung is committed to pursuing social justice in research, mentorship, and policy. The OIF award will enhance his ability to develop a robust research program as an independent investigator. Dr. Aung will leverage these resources to create training opportunities for underrepresented students. Additionally, Dr. Aung will identify opportunities to apply the findings to inform policy and decision-making for reducing environmental health disparities.

Dr. Wu is a postdoc at Northeastern University, where he works with the PROTECT Data Management and Analytics Core. His research will focus on the development of an algorithm that can predict gestational age during pregnancy. Unlike traditional machine learning algorithms that provide only a predicted outcome, Dr. Wu’s Interpretable AI projectwill focus on developing an algorithm that can identify which risk factors are most predictive, how the individual factors influence each other, and whether there are differences among various subgroups of the larger population. Factors will include chemical exposures, health data, personal habits, product use, and socioeconomic characteristics. Once the algorithm is developed, Chieh will work with the Project 1 team to use the PROTECT cohort as a test case.

This research project is an important step in Dr. Wu’s goal of contributing to medical research with his expertise in machine learning. Working with the epidemiologists and health scientists in PROTECT will introduce Dr. Wu to the biological sciences side of environmental health research, including current issues that machine learning and artificial intelligence may be able to address. Ultimately, Dr. Wu intends to pursue a tenure-track position that will allow him to continue to apply machine learning to the healthcare field. PROTECT is excited to see the success of both OIF grant applications, and we look forward to the results of these collaborations. Congratulations Dr. Aung and Dr. Wu!