Campus News

Staff Spotlight: Meet Lisa Valencia, a Project Specialist Documenting the Impacts of Air Pollution on Children’s Health

Bokie Muigai January 30, 2024
smiling woman

Photo courtesy Lisa Valencia.

Lisa Valencia is a project specialist in the division of environmental health in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She started working at USC over 11 years ago when she was recruited to The Children’s Health Study. Later, she began to work as a project specialist on the PRISMS Real time air pollution and asthma study with Rima Habre, ScD, MSc, associate professor of environmental health and spatial sciences.

“Lisa is such an essential part of my team,” expresses Habre. “She has been a valuable member of the Environmental Health Division and the Children’s Health Study for years—long before I ever got to USC. In research, and especially in air pollution science labs, attention to detail and highest quality data is of the utmost importance, and with Lisa I know our studies are always in great hands, and I am grateful to work with her every day. We have been very fortunate to work on some of the most sophisticated personal monitoring studies with children, pregnant women, and more, and I am very proud of what we’ve accomplished together, and with our team and collaborators.” Read more about Valencia’s time and contributions to the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences.

What are your main responsibilities in the department?

When I was hired on the PRISMS study, my main responsibilities were to recruit children with asthma to participate in the study, and to program and monitor the technology we used to collect data. The study involved participants wearing a Bluetooth sensor smartwatch, inhaler, phone, and Airbeam air pollution sensor. These devices monitored various factors including air pollution, environmental exposures, location, medication, and the participant’s health and activity. The goal was to predict and prevent an asthma attack in kids using smart technology. It was a great study to work on and to collect very detailed data to better understand childhood asthma.

What drew you to pursue a career in public health?

It goes back to my upbringing—my father worked at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, and my mother worked at USC in research. I grew up in this environment, and so I understood it. I also enjoy conducting research which I find really interesting—so all these experiences guided me to where I am today.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?

On the backend of my work, I really enjoy getting out in the field and working with the equipment. I enjoy the process of working with different devices to collect data. Then down the line, it is rewarding to see the study’s outcomes and the positive changes when findings contribute to policies regarding air pollution and how to better protect people’s health.

How has your worked changed over the years?

One thing that has evolved over time is the equipment. When I first started working on the study, we would lug huge devices around to do pulmonary function tests and exhaled nitric oxide testing on the children. You needed to have muscles to carry the equipment around. Now the devices are handheld and tiny!

Who do you work the closest with?

I cannot say enough good things about Rima. She is amazing to work with and I enjoy working and learning from her. She is all around a great person and I’m very lucky to be able to work closely with her.

What has been your experience engaging with study participants?

Since I started this work until now, we have been focusing on children’s health. So, we are mainly engaging with parents. I’ve found that if there is something that can better their children’s health, then they are interested and willing to participate—they want what is best for their children!

How does working on air pollution studies influence your personal life?

I am more aware of air pollution and I notice it. I recognize the implications of living near freeways and ports because of the higher concentration of pollutants, and I understand the effects of these air pollutant exposures on our health.

Get to know Lisa

As a child, Lisa’s father managed and trained professional boxers which inspired her own pursuits. Later, she went on to box professionally for three years in the 2000s. During the 2008 recession, Lisa opened and managed a boxing gym for approximately 3 years and got her personal training certificate. “Boxing teaches you self-discipline, self-defense and keeps you in shape,” she advises. “It also teaches you to be humble!”

What did you want to be as a child?

I wanted to be an artist and inventor—I enjoy drawing, sculpting, and doing things with my hands. I also enjoy creating and looking at how to make things better—I was recently able to realize a childhood dream of mine. I received a patent in 2023 for a hand wrap that I designed for boxers and combat athletes, which was exciting and so, I’m very proud of that.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I enjoy traveling to different countries- I’ve been to Africa (Virunga National Park), Cuba, and Peru to name a few, but there are so many other countries I can’t wait to explore. I like being outdoors and going to the beach—hanging out or going bodyboarding. I enjoy staying active and going to the gym—it’s important to me.