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Villanova Scientists Receive NIH Grant to Examine Effects of Subway Air Quality on Public Health

headhshots of kabindrya shakya and aimee eggler
Kabindra Shakya, PhD, assistant professor of Geography and the Environment, and Aimee Eggler, PhD, associate professor of Biochemistry.

VILLANOVA, Pa. - Underground subway stations often have high levels of air particulates, which when breathed in through the lungs cause stress at the cellular level and potentially contribute to chronic diseases. A team of Villanova scientists has received a three-year, $346,692 grant from the National Institutes of Health to provide evidence of health effects related to exposure to subway particles—with the hope that the findings can lead to an understanding of how to remediate and improve subway air quality for subway workers and commuters.

Kabindra Shakya, PhD, assistant professor, Geography and the Environment and Aimee Eggler, PhD, associate professor, Chemistry, Biochemistry Program, are co-principal investigators on the grant. Collaborators on the work include Vanessa Boschi, PhD, associate research professor, Chemistry; Michael Posner, PhD, PStat, associate professor, Mathematics and Statistics; and Shaun McCullough, PhD, an inhalation toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Exposure to air particulates is associated with a wide array of adverse health conditions, from cardiopulmonary diseases to neurological diseases and adverse birth outcomes. Dr. Shakya and his research team—comprised primarily of Villanova undergraduate students—will monitor three Philadelphia subway stations, including both the ground locations at street level and the underground locations. Previous research from his lab has found high levels of particulate matter at Philadelphia subway stations.  

“There’s a lot of work that has been done in this area in Asia and Europe. In the US there are just a few studies on particulate matter, let alone about the health effects, but not very much in US cities,” Dr. Shakya explains. “This would be one of the very few studies that’s done to assess health effects and comparing it across not just the underground subway stations, but above ground at the same time. We will analyze what the particles are made up of. Depending on the chemical components, that will determine the health effects.” 

Dr. Eggler and her research team—also Villanova undergraduate students—will then expose the particles to human lung cells. “We think metals are going to be a big part of what is inside these particles, and we will examine the cellular effects on human lung cells. There are several markers we will be looking for that will indicate the level of stress they are under.”  

A total of 15 Villanova undergraduate students will be trained and funded with this study, including 10 summer and five in-semester positions. There will be additional support from Villanova for additional research students. Two Villanova undergraduate researchers will have the opportunity to work on the project at the Toxicology Lab of US Environmental Protection Agency in North Carolina. “We’ll be able to expose students to really cutting-edge techniques in that advanced laboratory environment,” Dr. Eggler says.  

Working on statistical analysis for the project will be Dr. Posner and his team of Villanova undergraduate researchers.

Dr. Shakya’s areas of expertise are environmental pollution, environmental health and sustainability issues. He received his doctorate from Rice University. Dr. Eggler’s specific research area involves the molecular mechanisms of how stressors, dietary molecules and other agents activate the Nrf2 transcription factor, which upregulates numerous proteins that protect against oxidative stress and toxins. She received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.