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Scholar Feature: Krystal Pollitt’s Innovative Wristbands and Necklaces Uncover Environmental Exposures in Springfield

Krystal Pollitt, PhD, P.Eng., Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and a 2017-18 CRF Family Research Scholar (FRS), describes her entry into public health as non-traditional.

A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Pollitt focused on examining atmospheric chemistry in graduate school by using high-end analytical tools. She investigated the various components of smog to determine their influence on the climate and to identify their negative impacts on health.

While completing her doctoral studies at King’s College London, Pollitt redirected her focus toward environmental health sciences in order to apply her love of high-precision data analysis to a public health approach. She studied the effects of air pollution on health and discovered first hand the negative impacts of poor air quality, including the red, watery eyes and a persistent cough known colloquially as the “London eye” and “London nose.” This personal experience motivated Pollitt to continue her work linking medical conditions to pollution.

“London is at the epicenter of air pollution--they have been dealing with it for hundreds of years,” she explains. “Growing up in a smaller city, I didn’t experience these adverse health outcomes.”

In 2015, as a new faculty member in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst, Pollitt sought out resources and programs that support faculty. Pollitt’s colleague and ’15-16 Family Research Scholar, Dr. Laura Vandenberg, encouraged her to apply to the program, describing CRF as “one of the gems on campus.” Pollitt finds that having a regularly scheduled time to meet with other researchers has helped her better communicate why her research is so essential to the public. Over the next year, Dr. Pollitt will work closely with CRF director Maureen Perry-Jenkins, methodologists and her fellow FRS cohort to gain invaluable experience translating her research in an interdisciplinary setting, learn about relevant funding agencies and receive guidance on developing a competitive grant proposal.

Pollitt plans to study the ways in which cumulative, environmental factors impact  disease, with the ultimate goal of developing strategies for people to better avoid certain exposures and the negative health outcomes associated with them. “Exposure to air pollution is unavoidable. Here in Amherst the air is clean, but many people don’t have that luxury,” explains Pollitt. Asthma rates in children in Springfield (20%) are nearly twice the state-wide rates (11%) and there are ethnic/racial disparities in asthma-related emergency department visits. Pollitt’s proposed research will focus on mother-child dyads from low-income Hispanic families in Springfield.

Pollitt’s team developed a novel, low-cost wearable wristband that will gather extensive data about personal environmental exposures.

“Historically, engineers have always designed very complicated and expensive pieces of equipment which measure a set panel of pollutants. While these monitors provide real-time measurements of air pollutants, they are bulky and heavy. You can’t ask a pregnant woman or child to wear one. It took everything in me, as an engineer, to not over-design the wristbands,” says Pollitt.  She noticed that many students were wearing Livestrong bracelets and Fitbits, sparking the idea to design a comfortable, durable device that test subjects would want to wear. The wristbands are simple, inexpensive and waterproof. Subjects will wear them for periods lasting between twelve hours and 5 days, after which they will be returned to her lab for analysis.

Dr. Pollitt plans on collecting data in pediatric practices in Springfield, MA and through the Healthy Development Initiative, a community-focused research program. Using multiple tools-- questionnaires about stress, housing and activity; an inventory of products in the home; urine samples; and the new wristband--her team will capture data that will allow them to contrast environmental stressors across mothers of children with and without asthma. Pollitt hopes that the findings produced by her pilot research will ultimately be used to provide children and their families with tailored behavioral interventions to improve their asthma management.

--Faith English