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March 2009 Issue

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Grant Helps Nontraditional Student Launch Career in Environmental Health

By Amanda Harper
Published March 2009

Chris Curran, PhD, was working as a science writer at UC when she met her mentor—environmental health researcher Daniel Nebert, PhD—and discovered her true calling: gene-environment research.

Nebert had just received the Rieveschl Award and Curran was assigned to write a story about his work to understand the complex relationships between genes, disease and environmental exposures.

“I had earned my master’s in biological sciences and genetics and had really enjoyed my courses in environmental health, so after meeting Dr. Nebert I decided that if I ever pursued my doctorate, I would follow in his footsteps,” recalls Curran, a graduate of the environmental health department’s doctoral program in environmental genetics and molecular toxicology.

Soon after that epiphany, Curran had the opportunity to teach biology at Raymond Walters College in a two-year agreement expected to lead to a full-time faculty position.

Unfortunately, the faculty member she had temporarily replaced decided to come back, leaving her jobless, but with one year of course work completed toward her doctorate in environmental health.

Knowing she needed to pursue other avenues, she decided to pursue her doctorate as a full-time graduate student.

She applied for and received the Albert J. Ryan Fellowship, the highest honor the UC College of Medicine bestows on graduate students. The goal of the award is to promote the careers of students who will make important contributions to biomedical research.

“I always had an interest in genetics and environment, so the combination was very exciting—especially working with someone like Dr. Nebert, who had his hands in so many projects with the common theme of investigating how humans react when they encounter something in the environment—whether it is medication, something in the water or the air we breathe,” she adds.

For her doctoral research project, Curran chose to focus on genetic susceptibility to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organic compounds banned in the 1970s for their high toxicities to humans.

“I wanted to know where these chemicals were going in the body and whether there was a difference in susceptibility based on genetic differences,” she explains.

“Although PCBs have been banned for many years, we can still be exposed to high levels of the substance in certain areas. Over time, knowing who is genetically more susceptible will be important as PCB levels drop because what is safe for the average person may not be for you.”
In 2006, she was awarded a pilot grant through UC’s Center for Environmental Genetics Pilot Research Project (PRP) to support her research. The PRP is an initiative funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that offers financial support to young investigators with promising research ideas.

In addition to financial support from the PRP, she also had access—through UC and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center—to the sophisticated equipment necessary to do gene expression research.

Curran was able to develop skills applicable to various types of research—from participating in neurobehavioral studies at Cincinnati Children’s to conducting high-end analytical work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She credits that diverse learning experience and strong mentorship for launching her career.

“Within a few blocks, there were so many resources—both in terms of technology and world class scientific mentors. It made for an excellent learning environment,” she recalls.

Curran, who officially graduated with her doctorate of environmental health in June 2008, is now an assistant professor of biological sciences at Northern Kentucky University.

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