People in various capacities all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities. Health disparities stem from social determinants of health that affect all aspects of a person’s life. Achieving health equity will require more people to apply a health equity lens to their work, whether it’s in the economic, education, health care, social, or environmental domains. We are excited to expand our spotlight to feature people taking a variety of approaches to achieving equity both locally and globally.
Vishal Verma, PhD
Civil & Environmental Engineering
Vishal Verma, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Grainger College of Engineering and principal investigator of the Illinois Lab for Aerosol Research. His work is focused on assessing the health impacts of ambient air pollutants. Dr. Verma obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California (2011). Before his faculty position at Illinois, he worked as a research scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology (2011-2015). In the 13 years of his research career, he has published more than 40 peer-reviewed articles in highly ranked journals and has presented his work in at least 50 seminars/meetings and conferences, including several invited talks. He is the past chair of the Health-Related Aerosol Working Group at the American Association for Aerosol Research (AAAR), and currently the guest editor for the journal Atmosphere. Dr. Verma has earned numerous awards and recognitions for his work including the National Science Foundation Early CAREER award, and invited chair for special symposiums/sessions on Air Pollution and Health in the annual AAAR and AGU conferences.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I was born and brought up in New Delhi - a city consistently ranked at the top in the last five years for its notorious air pollution. I still remember the days I used to commute from my graduate college to home. It was an hour long commute and by the end of the day, I was completely drained, with my eyes red and burning. Inspiration works through many ways and sometimes it keeps working beneath, without you even being aware. I assume it might have played a role when I was offered admissions to PhD programs in many U.S. universities and I chose air pollution over other areas.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
The University of Illinois is a wonderful place because it has a good team of toxicologists – an area I wanted to add to my research portfolio. During my PhD and post-doctoral work, I was trained in studying the physicochemical properties of the ambient air pollutants, however, measurement of the toxicity of these pollutants, which is directly linked to their health impacts, was missing. So, early on, I collaborated with toxicologists, such as those in the Department of Crop Sciences, School of Chemical Sciences, and the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, to develop various cellular methods to measure the toxicity of these pollutants. Urbana-Champaign is very clean in terms of air pollution, which is not so great for my research, as I need substrate for the analysis. But, the community is great and very friendly. We have many sites setup in the city for studying the spatial distribution of air pollutants and the community has been so friendly and welcoming that I have had no issues in installing these sites.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
Multiple studies have indicated that the effects of COVID-19 are more severe in the regions impacted by higher air pollution levels. This is based on the premise that continuous exposure to high doses of air pollutants causes weakness in the human lungs, and thus, they are more susceptible to the infection caused by SARS-CoV-2. Generally, these high-pollution regions are more prevalent in underrepresented communities, such as Hispanic and African American. Last year, a study published in PNAS showed that on average, Black and Hispanic minorities bear a disproportionate burden from the air pollution caused mainly by non-Hispanic whites. I think the researchers in our area can play a major role in identifying the key sources of air pollution and mitigate this spatiotemporal variability by working with the targeted communities to mitigate systemic racism so that our society as a whole flourishes equally.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
Our work is focused on identifying the components of ambient particulate matter and their emission sources, which are mostly responsible for inducing the adverse health effects in humans. It includes quantifying the relative contributions of various aerosol components in toxicity, elucidating their unique mechanisms of action, and replicating those mechanisms in the laboratory to gain a better understanding of the impact of various emission sources and atmospheric processes on human health. This work is deeply connected to society at various levels. For example, if we have a good understanding of the toxic sources of air pollutants, then we can prioritize our strategy to control them, which is ultimately going to help society. On another level, society can also play a role by controlling the emissions at their end.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
This is a difficult question to answer because for me, everything I do is exciting. If it is not exciting, I have a hard time finishing it. But, if I must rank, then recently we have built a mask testing facility in our aerosol lab at Illinois. This facility was built from seed funding from JUMP Arches and is aimed to test the filtration efficiency of both surgical and N95 masks. In fact, we recently developed a method to sanitize the N95 mask and demonstrated its efficacy to maintain the filtration efficiency of N95. This wouldn’t have been possible without the development of the mask testing facility in our lab. We are proud to serve the local community in this difficult time during the pandemic.