Campus News

PhD student Shudi Pan awarded American Heart Association Pre-doctoral Fellowship

Bokie Muigai March 19, 2024
smiling portrait of a young woman

(Photo courtesy Shudi Pan)

Shudi Pan, a third-year PhD student in epidemiology in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, has been awarded the American Heart Association pre-doctoral fellowship. Pan’s area of research interest is in environmental epidemiology specifically in exposure to environmental chemical mixtures. Her proposed research will investigate the association between Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and high blood pressure in obese teenagers.

With the prevalence of cardiovascular disease expected to rise to over 40% by 2030, there is an urgent need for effective interventions.  “One way to prevent heart disease is to address high blood pressure early in life,” shares Pan. “One of the emerging risk factors for hypertension are endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as POPs.” Pan hopes to gain a better understanding of the association between POPs—which also disrupt the cardiovascular system—and high blood pressure. Her research proposes to conduct analyses in the Teen-Longitudinal Assessment of bariatric Surgery (Teen-LABS) study, one of the largest multi-center prospective studies to examine adolescents who have undergone bariatric surgery across the US.

Bariatric surgery has become an increasingly common intervention for people with severe obesity and metabolic disease. “After a patient undergoes bariatric surgery, POPs —which are stored in adipose tissue— are released back into the bloodstream,” Pan explains. “We are interested in how this rapid increase of POPs concentration in the plasma might affect the cardiovascular benefits of the surgery.”

“Additionally, there are many novel statistical methods focusing on addressing environmental chemical mixtures in relation to health outcomes. I’m interested in the application of these mixture methods on adolescent health or children’s health studies,” she says. Pan will utilize metabolomics—which are small molecules in the body—to provide a snapshot of physiological changes in the body at a molecular level, to further understand biological mechanisms between POPs and blood pressure changes after bariatric surgery.

Despite decades of efforts of POPs prohibition from usage, they remain a global public health challenge. “I feel as though there is a lack of understanding of how chemical exposures actually affect our daily lives,” she reports.  Her interest in environmental health began during her master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. During an assessment on exposures to environmental phenols on bone mineral density among 12-year-old children in a cohort in Ohio, she decided to pursue a PhD dedicated to this area. “I chose to come to USC because of the strong environmental health program here. I really wanted to work on exposomes and environmental mixtures and discovered that the professors here were already working on cutting-edge environmental health research.”

During her second year in this program, Pan took two courses that have been instrumental in her journey. “One was an introduction to causal inference, and the other was on grant writing which helped me draft the first version of this fellowship’s proposal and lay out my research,” she reveals. Pan recognizes there is a need for more research that focuses on environmental chemical mixtures collectively. Through this fellowship she aims to improve our understanding of the health effects of harmful chemicals that we encounter every day. “We want to recognize potential risks to support healthier and longer lives, additionally, our research will provide valuable insights into the complex molecular pathways that drive high blood pressure in adolescents.” she concludes.