Students Tackle Urgent Environmental Issues with New Scholarship Program> News> USC Dornsife
The new EH MATTERS scholarship gives students from under-represented groups a chance to conduct research on environmental health and safety issues. [3¾ min read]
Tim Saunders (left) and Leon Zhu gain experience in environmental health research through their EH MATTERS (Environmental Health Methodology, Training and Education Company) scholarships. (Photos: Courtesy of Tim Saunders; Ruth Chen.)
Just blocks from a busy Target store, preschool, and single-family home neighborhood in San Pedro, Calif. Are two tanks containing nearly 25 million gallons of butane gas. Should a spill occur, a single spark could ignite the highly combustible gas and trigger a massive explosion.
Residents nearby have unsuccessfully requested the removal of the tanks since their installation in the 1970s. Now Tim Saunders, a major in biological sciences from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is joining the fight, thanks to an EH MATTERS grant (Methodological, training and teaching company in environmental health) provided by the environmental health centers of USC.
Under the direction of Edward Avol, professor of clinical population and public health sciences at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, Saunders is developing a case study on the impact of reservoirs on the neighborhood.
Saunders details the risks associated with large reservoirs of highly flammable butane gas located near homes and schools in San Pedro. (Image source: Google Maps / Chris Valle.)
“I did calculations, based on an Environmental Protection Agency formula, for how far broken glass could spray and people would be injured. Ideally, the radius of the explosion would be around three miles. The port of Los Angeles would be damaged, ”says Saunders. “Then there is the worst case scenario. If you look at a maximum impact range, it could go up to about 10½ miles. “
He’s working on a website and infographics that visualize the danger in the hopes that he’ll get decision-makers to act.
Ensuring environmental equity
Saunders is one of seven students who are currently using an EH MATTERS scholarship to conduct research on environmental issues that affect human health and safety. The three-semester paid opportunity pairs students with a mentor who assigns a project and provides guidance for their work.
The fellowship is led by Avol, Jill Johnston, assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and space science at USC Dornsife, and Wendy Gutschow, pProgram Officer, Division of Environmental Health, Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine.
Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the scholarship aims to mentor students from backgrounds under-represented in the sciences. Application for the program includes considerations such as racial ethnicity, whether an applicant is a first generation student or an immigrant.
“I find that discussions of equity and diversity are often too narrowly focused on race or income in isolation, when in fact cultures, traditions and beliefs are also a big part of the conversation – and this program was designed with this in mind, ”says Rima Habre, associate professor of environmental (clinical) health and space science at the Keck School of Medicine and USC Dornsife.
In the air
The EH MATTERS scholarship enables Quantitative Biology student Leon Zha to act on long-standing environmental concerns. Zha grew up in the Bay Area, where seasonal wildfires in California were initially just a hindrance. By his sophomore year in high school, however, the fires became so extensive and the smoke from wildfires so suffocating that his cross-country and track workouts were often canceled.
Zha joined her high school environmental club, which cleaned the creek beds, lobbied the city council to enact stricter environmental regulations, and installed compost bins in the school.
He was also involved in the landmark Juliana v. United States case, in which 21 young people sued the federal government for inaction on climate change. An essay written by Zha, detailing the impact of the wildfires on her life, was submitted to the appeals court in connection with the case.
Now, thanks to his EH MATTERS scholarship, he is working with Habre on the issue of air pollution. Zha analyzed measurements of particles in the air around LA and determined its sources.
“Leon’s models will help investigators at the Center for Maternal and Developmental Risks of Social and Environmental Stressors understand which sources of exposure during pregnancy are most responsible for the higher risks to maternal and baby health.” Habre explains.
Friends and neighbors
Zha is happy that her work can make a tangible difference to people. “It’s no use if we’re just in an ‘ivory tower’ all day,” he said. “Ultimately, we want our science to have an impact on the community around us. “
Many environmental health issues affect low-income communities the most. Studies indicate that those who live in poor neighborhoods breathe more dangerous particles and drink more contaminated water. Communities that are primarily home to people of color and immigrants are also the most likely to be affected.
The EH MATTERS scholarship allows students from affected groups and neighborhoods to conduct research that could make a difference in their own backyards.
“As a man of color, EH MATTERS has given me a platform to speak on behalf of my community,” says Saunders.