Students tackle pressing environmental issues with new scholarship program > News > USC Dornsife

The new EH MATTERS Fellowship gives students from underrepresented groups the opportunity 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 Fellowships in Environmental Health Methodology, Training and Education (EH MATTERS). (Photos: Courtesy of Tim Saunders; Ruth Chen.)

A few blocks from a busy Target store, a preschool and a neighborhood of single-family homes in San Pedro, California, are two tanks containing nearly 25 million gallons of butane gas. If a spill were to occur, a single spark could ignite the highly combustible gas and trigger a massive explosion.

Local residents have been unsuccessfully demanding the tanks be removed since they were installed in the 1970s. Now USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Biological Sciences Major Tim Saunders joins the fight, thanks to a Methodological Company, Training and Education in Environmental Health (EH MATTERS) scholarship offered by the USC Environmental Health Centers.

Guided by Edouard AvolProfessor of Clinical Population and Public Health Sciences at USC Keck School of MedicineSaunders builds a case study on the impact of tanks on the neighborhood.

Saunders details the risks associated with large tanks 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 the distance the broken glass could spray and people would be hurt. In the best-case scenario, 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 be up to about 10 ½ miles.

He is working on a website and infographics that visualize the danger in the hope that policy makers will act.

Ensuring environmental equity

Saunders is one of seven students currently using an EH MATTERS fellowship to research 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 exchange is led by Avol, Jill Johnsonassistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and space science at USC Dornsife, and Wendy Gutschow, pprogram officer in the Division of Environmental Health, Department of Population Sciences and Public Health at the medical school.

Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the scholarship aims to mentor students from underrepresented backgrounds in science. Applying for the program includes considerations such as racial ethnicity, whether an applicant is a first-generation college 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 that program was designed with this in mind,” says Rima Habreassociate professor of environmental health (clinical) and space science at the Keck School of Medicine and USC Dornsife.

In the air

The EH MATTERS scholarship allows Leon Zha, a quantitative biology major, to act on long-standing environmental concerns. Zha grew up in the Bay Area, where California’s seasonal wildfires were at first just a background annoyance. However, beginning in his sophomore year in high school, the fires grew so large and the smoke from the wildfires so choking that his cross-country and track workouts were often cancelled.

Zha joined her high school’s environmental club, which cleaned up stream beds, lobbied the city council to adopt stricter environmental regulations and installed compost bins in the school.

He also got involved in the landmark Juliana vs USA 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 as part of the case.

Now, thanks to his EH MATTERS scholarship, he is working with Habré 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 Center for Social Environmental Stressors understand which sources of exposure during pregnancy are most responsible for higher health risks to mother and baby. “says Habre.

Friends and neighbors

Zha is happy that her work can make a tangible difference for people. “It’s no use if we’re just in an ‘ivory tower’ all day,” he says. “Ultimately, we want our science to impact the community around us.”

Many environmental health issues affect low-income communities the most. Studies indicate that people living 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 most likely to be affected.

The EH MATTERS Fellowship allows students from impacted groups and neighborhoods to conduct research that could make a difference in their own backyards.

“Being a man of color, EH MATTERS has given me a platform to speak on behalf of my community,” Saunders says.