Public Health Graduate Students Study Air Pollution in Ecuador

Last Updated on July 31, 2015 at 11:26 am

Originally published July 31, 2015

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

There and Back Again: With a gentle nod to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, this is the 15th article in an occasional series covering the off-campus experiences of UTEP students with study abroad, internships and externships, because what students learn outside the classroom is as important as what they learn inside the classroom.

While visiting the “Middle of the World,” a monument in San Antonio de Pichincha in Ecuador, UTEP research assistants Juan Antonio Aguilera, M.D., and Eric Martinez stood on the thick yellow line painted on the ground that marks the location of the equator – the imaginary line that divides the world into the northern and southern hemispheres.

Martinez, a recent graduate from The University of Texas at El Paso, and Aguilera, a student in the University’s Master of Public Health program, were in Quito, Ecuador, from May 31 to June 23 to assist Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., an associate professor of public health sciences, on a study to see how air pollution adversely affects the cardiovascular health of children and families.

“It was a great opportunity to apply our skills and knowledge in a total different setting and experience how research is performed in another country,” said Aguilera, a graduate research assistant since 2013. “I was excited to apply my experience both as a public health professional and share opinions with leaders in the field.”

Since last summer, Armijos and his colleagues from the University of Central Ecuador’s Biomedical Research Institute in Quito have been investigating whether long-term exposure to high levels of air pollutants caused by heavy traffic promotes atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, in children and adults in Quito.

Martinez and Aguilera previously assisted Armijos in a similar study in El Paso. They gained valuable hands-on training while helping Armijos investigate if transient exposure to high levels of air pollution causes oxidative stress and systemic inflammation in elementary school-aged children.

The training allowed them to confidently apply their skills in South America.

“The research experience (in Ecuador) gave me a new skill and knowledge about air pollution,” said Martinez, who earned a master’s in public health from UTEP this summer. “I also saw how air pollution levels are quite different in Ecuador than in El Paso. The Ecuador and El Paso research are quite similar, but I had different tasks that I needed to accomplish.”

In Ecuador, researchers conducted health screenings and collected data on blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and cardiovascular screenings on 600 participants in order to research the correlation with environmental factors, such as air pollution, Aguilera explained.

Aguilera, who earned a medical degree from the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, took cardiovascular measurements, including arterial stiffness and heart rate variability and also performed an ultrasound of the carotid arteries and an electrocardiogram of each participant.

“This research will contribute significantly to our understandings of the nature and the implications of environmental factors, like air pollution, in the development of chronic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes,” Aguilera said.

Maria Duarte-Gardea, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Public Health Sciences, said students who travel abroad on supervised research experiences benefit from being exposed to a different population and environment.

“Conducting research in a different setting like in Ecuador provides our students with a unique opportunity to learn about health disparities within a global context,” Duarte added. “This gives our students an invaluable experience and new perspectives in border and global health. We are grateful that our students have opportunities of this type that allow them to grow academically and culturally.”

Researchers also collected air pollution measurements on streets with a high volume of traffic in the morning and afternoon. They also measured indoor air pollution inside some of the participants’ homes.

“I’ve learned more about how research has to be tailored in order to serve a specific population, even though our research in El Paso is aimed at a Hispanic population,” said Aguilera “Ecuadorians have eating habits and environmental conditions which differ from ours; this creates the need to analyze these variations to better identify the specific needs for each group.”

Ecuador’s green valleys, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes were the perfect setting for Martinez and Aguilera to pursue outdoor adventure. In their spare time, they rappelled down waterfalls, went on zip-lining excursions, rode horses and devoured Ecuadorian cuisine.

“Not many opportunities like this open up and when they told me to go I did not hesitate,” said Martinez, who plans to pursue a career in environmental health. “This was my first time going to Ecuador.”

Aguilera plans to graduate from UTEP in December 2015 or May 2016. He plans to combine his experience in the Master of Public Health program with his medical background to address issues affecting the U.S.-Mexico border community by conducting binational research.

While his time in Ecuador was brief, Aguilera looks forward to returning to the country someday.

“Even though we were strangers, for (the researchers at the Biomedical Research Institute) it really didn’t matter,” Aguilera said. “They treated us as family and in every opportunity they were more than happy to show us around the wonderful things their country had to offer. Also, there was a lot of work to be done and only by working together and helping one another, we were able to reach our intended goals and serve the people who participated. Thanks to this trip we forged friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Related Stories:

Professors to Study Food Insecurity, Air Pollution in Ecuador

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