Meet the Scholars: Max Aung
Max Aung holds a PhD in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. He is a part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2016.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.
I was born in Yangon, Burma, and immigrated to the United States when I was 5 years old. I earned a BS in Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and then pursued my MPH and PhD at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. At each stage of my career, I have received integral mentorship through programming and networking, and I have been deeply committed to partnering with colleagues to develop mentorship programs for emerging scholars in public health. Presently, my research interests center on understanding the impact of environmental exposures on the developmental origins of health and disease. I focus specifically on integrating machine learning and high-dimensional statistical approaches to investigate complex mixtures of environmental toxicants in association with biomarkers of immune disruption during pregnancy.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
I grew up in Bakersfield, California, where there is a lot of agriculture and oil and gas extraction. I remember one of my formative learning experiences was when I wrote a research paper in high school focused on the problem of underground leaking oil tanks in my county. I had no idea what the field of environmental health was back then, but ever since I wrote that paper, my interest in environmental issues was inseparable from my continued learning and scholarship.
In college, I conducted research in a paleoceanography laboratory and characterized historical global sea surface temperatures in order to inform models of future trends that could result from climate change. As I started to think about my future career, I knew I wanted to merge this experience in ocean sciences research with my undergraduate course work in molecular biology. When I found the field of environmental health sciences, I realized it was exactly the right fit for me to develop a research career trying to understand how the environment affects our health. Importantly, the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis posits that early life exposures can set the stage for an individual’s health trajectory throughout their life course. When I learned about this hypothesis in my graduate coursework, I became passionate about developing my dissertation research on early life environmental exposures and their impacts on maternal health during pregnancy. By characterizing these relationships, we can better predict adverse pregnancy outcomes and later life conditions. My research can also be used to inform regulatory action on environmental exposures, as well as clinical and community-based interventions.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about?
Recently, I investigated maternal exposures to trace metals in association with biomarkers of immune disruption during pregnancy. These metals include toxic metals such as lead and cadmium, in addition to essential metals, such as selenium and manganese. One of the biggest challenges in environmental epidemiology is that humans are not just exposed to single toxicants, but are rather, exposed to complex mixtures of contaminants simultaneously. As such, there is a critical need to develop appropriate statistical methodologies to handle the analysis of toxicant mixtures. An exciting aspect of this project is that I learned and applied machine learning techniques and shrinkage estimation to analyze multiple correlated predictor variables simultaneously. We found that in a mixture of trace metals, manganese was the dominant metal positively associated with the pro-inflammatory molecule interleukin-1β. The downstream implication of this finding is that excessive exposure to manganese may potentially result in the up-regulation of inflammation, an important risk factor for adverse pregnancy outcomes and altered fetal development.
There are several public health benefits for advancing these methodologies, and understanding the relationship between environmental exposures and biomarkers of health status. Some environmental exposures are modifiable through changes in regulations and industry practices. The statistical methods that I have implemented for mixtures analysis can help prioritize important toxicants. Policymakers have historically regulated toxicants individually; therefore identification of the most important exposures can help policymakers prioritize specific toxicants. Another benefit is that these methods can quantify the cumulative effect of multiple toxicants, which is incredibly important for informing risk assessments. The last thing I will underline is that characterizing associations with biomarkers during pregnancy can help predict downstream health outcomes, such as preterm birth or altered fetal development. By doing so, we can not only inform interventions but also reduce the economic burden of health outcomes associated with environmental exposures.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
One of the most challenging aspects of creating healthy environments is that our societies rely heavily on fossil fuels, plastics, pesticides, and other common sources of environmental contamination. Exposure to chemicals from these sources is affecting the health of our population and future generations, and no single discipline can solve this problem alone. So you can see that solving environmental health issues will require collaboration between scholars in my field, as well as scholars and practitioners in other fields, such as economics, law, and urban planning, to name a few. But I am hopeful because the HRPS program has created a space for my fellow HPRS colleagues and me to bridge disciplines and solve these problems outside of silos.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
I admire Dr. Charles Janeway, Jr. (1943–2003), an influential scholar whose rigorous research helped pioneer the field of immunology. Dr. Janeway’s textbook on immunology laid the foundation for my understanding of the biological mechanisms of the immune system. The lessons I learned through his work have shaped many aspects of my curiosity for investigating the impacts of environmental exposures on the maternal immune system.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
I think that doctoral education has a tendency to nestle you so deep into your discipline’s norms and ideas that you sometimes lose sight of the broader implications of your research. However, being an HPRS Scholar challenged me to continuously look outward to literature and ideas from other disciplines alongside rigorously developing the skills within my own discipline. Ultimately, this training has helped make me a more well-rounded scholar.
In the RWJF HPRS program we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
I would use my research to inform policies aimed at reducing environmental contamination and mitigating climate change, such as federal implementation of a carbon tax. I would also advocate for allocation of some of that revenue for community-based organizations and programs that seek to help communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?
I would be so excited to go back to Burma and visit my family’s hometown where I was born. I think it would be a really fun experience to relive my family’s history and connect with my roots.