Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center receives $7.8M NIH grant

SWEHSC research led by Karletta Chief, PhD, involves assessing short-term exposures and risk perceptions on the Navajo Nation following the catastrophic Gold King Mine spill in 2015.

SWEHSC research led by Karletta Chief, PhD, involves assessing short-term exposures and risk perceptions on the Navajo Nation following the catastrophic Gold King Mine spill in 2015.

University of Arizoan Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center

The Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center in the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy received $7.8 million to further research efforts focused on environmental and health challenges in the Southwest.

The Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center was founded in 1994 and has since been funded continuously by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The center promotes environmental health research across the University of Arizona in six colleges and 19 departments, with strong support from the Office of Research, Innovation and Impact, UArizona Health SciencesBIO5 Institute, Coit College of Pharmacy, Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Medicine – Tucson and College of Science.

Center director Nathan Cherrington said there are 2.1 billion people globally who live in arid lands similar to those in the Southwest. As climate change increases the burden on human health through water scarcity and respiratory issues caused by exposures unique to the desert, the arid Southwest serves as a microcosm for the resulting health effects.

The center actively promotes interdisciplinary research initiatives, both within and across three research focus groups, fosters collaboration and brings together experts from various fields to address complex environmental health challenges.

According to center deputy director Dean Billheimer, the center’s success stems from the talent and dedication of its 54 members.

"The center itself enables research by providing interdisciplinary technical support and scientific advice to researchers and by providing seed funding for new projects," said Billheimer, who is also a professor of biostatistics in the Zuckerman College of Public Health. "These technical and scientific activities rely on the collaborative expertise of the research focus group and technical core scientists."

In the past decade, the center’s pilot project program invested just under $1.5 million in research, resulting in almost $58.4 million in total NIH awards. That's a total return on investment of 40-to-1, said Cherrington, who also is the Coit College of Pharmacy associate dean for research and head of the Center for Toxicology.

Xinxin Ding, head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Coit College of Pharmacy, chairs the center's pilot project program and is director of the Inhalation Exposure Resource. He said the center serves as a hub for environmental health science researchers and trainees from various university departments to interact and collaborate.

"The center is unique in its true integration of researchers from across campus to work toward a common goal, and the shared commitment to excellence is a real strength," Ding said.

Douglas Cromey, director for the Cellular Imaging Facility Core, has been with the center since it began nearly 30 years ago. He highlights the community outreach and engagement activities that are among the projects and initiatives that have come out of the center since its inception.

"Through decades of hard work, the Community Engagement Core has become a known and trusted partner of tribal communities and helped make the center a resource for the tribes' environmental concerns," Cromey said.

The Community Engagement Core works closely with tribal partners from across the state to hold semiannual tribal forums and youth summer programs that introduce environmental and social justice concepts.

Other center initiatives include Steps 2 STEM, a four-week research experience for high school students participating in the Pima County Joint Technical Education District's Biotechnology or Health Care Foundations programs. The program is a partnered endeavor between the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

"The center has a long tradition of supporting research excellence in environmental health sciences and engaging the local community for research translation and citizen science," Ding said. "The continued success of the center is rooted in our commitment to this mission and made possible by the unwavering support from the university, UArizona Health Sciences and College of Pharmacy leadership."

A version of this article originally appeared on the UArizona Health Sciences website.