Adverse Reactions

To Breathe a Little Easier and Why the Lungs Are the Sexiest Organ

June 03, 2021 Ilona Jaspers, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Season 1 Episode 6
Adverse Reactions
To Breathe a Little Easier and Why the Lungs Are the Sexiest Organ
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

From vaping to wildfire smoke to pollutants such as diesel exhaust to airborne diseases, the lungs are the organ most exposed to our external environment, according to Ilona Jaspers of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Jaspers also introduces co-hosts Anne Chappelle and David Faulkner to convergence science, a new approach to interdisciplinary work meant to bring disparate experts together.


About the Guest

Ilona Jaspers, PhD, is a Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) in the Department of Pediatrics; Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology; and Division of Infectious Diseases, with joint appointments in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology as well as Environmental Sciences and Engineering. She received her undergraduate degree from Seton Hall University and her PhD in environmental health sciences from New York University. Dr. Jaspers came to UNC-CH to conduct her postdoctoral studies in the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology. 

Dr. Jaspers has a long-standing interest in the adverse health effects induced by inhaled pollutant exposures, especially how they affect respiratory immune responses. As the Director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, Dr. Jaspers collaborates extensively with investigators from UNC-CH and the US Environmental Protection Agency to conduct translational studies related to air pollution health effects. Using translational human in vitro and in vivo models, research in Dr. Jaspers’s laboratory focuses on the mechanisms by which exposure to air pollutants such as ozone, woodsmoke, cigarette smoke, and e-cigarettes modifies host defense responses. 

Dr. Jaspers also is the Director of the Curriculum in Toxicology, overseeing the training and mentoring of graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows. She is passionate about training the next generation of scientists, always encouraging trainees to get involved in non-laboratory events, such as community outreach service, K–12 education, or public health activities. She is an expert on the health effects of vaping and toxicities of e-cigarette components and has been active in the community to educate parents, teachers, health care providers, and teenagers about the dangers of vaping.



The viewpoints and information presented in Adverse Reactions represent those of the participating individuals. Although the Society of Toxicology holds the copyright to the production, it does not vet or review the information presented, nor does presenting and distributing the Adverse Reactions podcast represent any proposal or endorsement of any position by the Society.

David Faulkner: Welcome to Adverse Reactions. I'm David Faulkner.

Anne Chappelle: And I'm Anne Chappelle. 

David Faulkner: I'm a toxicologist and a risk assessor.

Anne Chappelle: And I'm a risk assessor and a toxicologist.

David Faulkner: And on this show, we explore the stories behind the science. 

Anne Chappelle: This is where we talk to toxicology experts from around the country and around the globe that use the field of toxicology to advance public health and also to protect the environment.

David Faulkner: On this episode of Adverse Reactions, "To Breathe a Little Easier and Why the Lungs Are the Sexiest Organ."

Ilona Jaspers: It showed me that research can actually directly matter. It's not just a sort of abstract thing that gets published and nobody reads it. It actually can affect people's lives. That sort of just drew me to it, and I really enjoy continuing in that journey. 

Anne Chappelle: Featuring Ilona Jaspers.

Ilona Jaspers: Near-road effect clearly has been established, where people who are living near a major highway seem to be more affected by pollutants than people who are not. Is this because they're exposed to more pollution, or is this also because they have noise stress as well as other stress?  

David Faulkner: Well, hello. We are here with Ilona Jaspers today to talk about a lot of things. You have a number of interesting positions at University of North Carolina: teaching, director of curriculum and toxicology at UNC. I'm curious, how do you find the balance, the time, to do these things?

Ilona Jaspers: I don't know. I think you sort of have to prioritize obviously when there's grant deadlines, and any other deadline for that matter, but you make sure you have lots of really good people working with you as a team, and you can delegate. I have some phenomenal people as administrative support staff with me as my role in the Curriculum in Toxicology, as well as my role in the center, as well as my role as a head of the lab.

I also have phenomenal trainees in my lab; I can completely count on them. That helps a lot. You know, you obviously have to prioritize, do as best as you can, and make sure you surround yourself with people that you can trust, count on, and just have a really good working relationship with them. That helps.

Anne Chappelle: So, if you had to describe your day-to-day job, your day-to-day role, how would you explain it to my mom?

Ilona Jaspers: How about if I try to explain it to my mom, which was probably the equivalent, right? 

Anne Chappelle: They're probably both listening, so that would be fine. 

Ilona Jaspers: What I tell my mom is that almost I have like three different jobs, where I am still a scientist and I still love finding new scientific discoveries and publish them and sort of understand how inhaled toxicants modify respiratory immune responses. I get very excited about, sort of, new ways of sort of looking at that. 

I'm also a mentor. That's probably my biggest fun job—working with the students and trainees and postdocs and undergraduates and all kinds. I mean, you know, trainees come in all sizes, shapes, ages, skill levels. And so, I really enjoy doing that. I don't teach; I mentor. I make that distinction. I see mentoring more as like the apprenticeship kind of role, where it's really more of a one-on-one catered to the particular trainee. So that's my second role. 

And then my third role, which unfortunately is increasing more and more, is that of an administrator, and quote-unquote, as some call me: boss lady. So that unfortunately is taking up more and more of my time, but I try to, again, there, you really have to delegate. So I have three jobs. 

Anne Chappelle: That’s good. And, you know,inhalation toxicology, that was one of the things that I worked a lot on in my early days. It is front and center: aerosol deposition. These new, emerging fields of epidemiology, of public health, are really coming to a forefront. And I don't think people realized how important it is to breathe.

Ilona Jaspers: Yes, and understanding what actually happens and that really the lung is the organ that's most exposed to the environment. People always think of the skin, but the skin is only, you know, of an average person would have two square meters that basically is exposed to the environment. The lung, if you completely flatten that out, is 30 times that much. So in terms of the air that we breathe in on a daily basis, how much of the external environment that's surrounding us actually comes into contact with the body is much more important in the lung than it is for the skin.

David Faulkner: Absolutely. And we don't breathe through our skin—most of us, anyway. Any amphibians listening, I apologize. 

Ilona Jaspers: I was just going to say, don't offend the frogs out there.

David Faulkner: I mean, this is tremendously important research. And the pandemic has shifted so many aspects of our lives. How has it changed anything about the research that you're doing or any of your jobs, I imagine, as administrator, especially?

Ilona Jaspers: So, as the administrator, totally, because all of a sudden, some of my grants came to a screeching halt because we couldn't do certain things anymore. What do I do with all the federal funding that I have to do these studies? So I need to get an extension. I need to get a revision. I need to contact, you know, my NIH officers. Although I have to say, NIH has been incredibly collaborative with us. Kudos to them—they completely understand. But still, it needs to be documented. 

In terms of research, we are shifting gears. We want to understand, are there certain toxicants, inhaled contaminants, that could possibly modify the way you are responding to SARS-CoV-2 infection? Literally today, one of my graduate students is doing exactly that. Looking at, you know, whether any kind of pre-exposure to wood smoke, to biomass, to diesel exhaust, to ozone, to any kind of things, any kind of environmental contaminant, can modify your response to SARS-CoV-2. So we've done that. 

But mentoring, going back to that third role, as we are now sitting here via Zoom—we're not in person—we're all having, probably, some sort of mental health issues right now. And students and trainees are not exempt from that. So I need to be cognizant of that. They are not just trainees in my lab. They also have personal lives. With those personal lives come potential personal difficulties—tragedies, in some cases—and they cannot go and see their families. So that now becomes part of the mentoring. So I can't just go out and give them a hug and say, listen, drop everything, go visit your family, make sure you're OK. I cannot do that right now. 

Lastly, which is something that we're going to be confronting, is recruiting, recruiting to PhD programs. It's a challenge. So that has definitely changed things as well.

Anne Chappelle: You're probably going to get a lot more people interested, though, in inhalation. You're not going to have to sell it in quite the same way, perhaps, right? 

Ilona Jaspers: It’s interesting. You're probably right. So, we've actually sort of been riding the wave ever since e-cigarettes, vaping, EVALI has come front and center. So we've been riding the, you know, "inhalation toxicology is sexy" wave for a couple of years. 

Anne Chappelle: I love that.

David Faulkner: I want that on a mug.

Ilona Jaspers: I was sort of stealing. So I have a really good friend who's a pulmonologist, and he actually had told me years ago, he was like, you know what, Ilona, the lung is the sexiest organ.

Anne Chappelle: That's a T-shirt. 

David Faulkner: The lung, of course, is a very sexy organ; on that, we're all agreed. Is that what originally drew you to this line of work? I mean, I'm curious, because you're a part of the reason why this is a hot topic right now. So how did you get started in this in the first place?

Ilona Jaspers: Yeah, I think sort of how I started in inhalation toxicology was a little bit more serendipitously. I did want to study either toxicology or pharmacology because I was really intrigued how chemicals modify biological systems. And, you know, the difference between toxicology and pharmacology is a matter of dose. Actually, when I applied to graduate school, I applied equally to toxicology and pharmacology programs. So I really wasn't set on having, you know, something to do with air pollution or environmental contaminants. But I was really intrigued by the group at NYU who sort of trained me for my PhD. It was one of the classical inhalation toxicology training programs. They trained me early on that this is important. This is of public health impact. This actually informs EPA guidelines. The research that we do here, you know, informs the NAAQS. 

Anne Chappelle: The NAAQS?

Ilona Jaspers: National Ambient Air Quality Standards. So, it showed me that research can actually directly matter. It's not just a sort of abstract thing that gets published and nobody reads it. It actually can affect people's lives. That sort of just drew me to it, and I really enjoy continuing in that journey.

David Faulkner: For people, young people, who might be listening to this trying to find their way to decide what they want to study, who are maybe making that decision: pharmacology, toxicology, medicine. What would you say to them?

Ilona Jaspers: It's not a one size fits all. For me, I had actually a fork in the road in my post-graduate career where I could have gone into an area that was very molecular, very basic science, sort of understanding, you know, different components of very detailed signaling pathways, but really a more in an abstract way. You know, I, I could have published papers. I could have gotten grants and showed up and fine, but it just wasn't satisfying to me. 

To me, what's really more satisfying is really understanding things that matter in the larger public health realm. Abstract research, I adore my colleagues who are absolute geneticists or biochemists and understand, you know, the intricate details of RNA and histone modifications and all of that biochemistry. I really love working with them, but it's not for me. I really like more the sort of translational aspect, do something that I can explain to my mother, you know, without really sort of twisting myself into a pretzel. But that's a personal choice. I also understand that I benefit from the people who do the much more abstract kind of research because I extract their information and their knowledge and then apply it into my system. So I benefit from them; it's just not for me. 

That's a choice that people need to make: Are you OK with doing something that happens a little bit in an abstract vacuum, or are you really more interested in something that, you know, is hands-on and you can visualize and sort of talk to a neighbor about?

Anne Chappelle: And the role of science communication, there is a definite need to figure out how to, because your people that may be working in some more of these abstracts, if they can't help translate it, they need people like you and other good communicators and more generalists, perhaps in a particular area, to help you take that message and run with it and make it into something we can all understand a little better. 

Ilona Jaspers: I think you're absolutely right. COVID has sort of lifted the curtain on a lot, a lot of things. One of them, as you alluded to, is the real sort of paucity science communication. I would blame myself as well as some of my colleagues of not really doing that well. We're trained to write papers, publish papers, and get grants. We're not trained to go in front of a classroom of eighth graders. We don't get promoted based on that. We don't get tenure based on that. We don't get our next NIH grant based on that. And that's the currency we're living on. 

The whole idea of effective communication and science communication and really sort of exploring different ways of doing this in the more general way, is not part of most PhD programs or most professional development as a sort of federally funded investigator. It shows right now. The poor science communication left this vacuum for all kinds of misinformation because scientists are very camera shy. We get training in how to hold a scientific presentation but not a town hall. So that's the kind of science communication that's absolutely lacking, and it shows right now. 

David Faulkner: So that raises two questions. I guess the first one is, what is the change that needs to happen to incentive structure make this a thing that people actually want to do? And I guess the second thing is, how do you justify it to, to the people that would need to do it? Because, you know, I've taught eighth graders. It's the most terrifying thing you can do as a human being. It doesn't matter what discipline you're in. It's, it's a nightmare. 

Ilona Jaspers: Thankfully, there is a little bit of movement already on that. NIH now recognizes that products or productivity does not only mean peer-reviewed publications. So they do recognize that things like this, a podcast, is actually a product of your research. 

The National Science Foundation has done a much better job on this because they don't fund human health research; they fund more basic science research. And there, a product, a patent, a prototype, those are all products that may not be reflected in a peer-reviewed publication but are a direct product and outcome of the funding that the investigator received. NIH is moving in that, and that's a really, really good thing. However, I'm still not going to get my next R01 based on doing a great podcast. It could be the best podcast ever. 

Anne Chappelle: Of course.

Ilona Jaspers: I'm not going to get another NIH grant based on that. We, as program directors, need to put more efforts in making sure our trainees are getting the proper training so they can talk to eighth graders. It's not just grant writing skills that we need to provide them. We also need to provide them with community outreach and engagement and opportunities to talk to regular people about the research and provide them with resources to do that and also recognize that that’s part of their professional development and their products that they bring out.   

David Faulkner: The key to that is the resources part of it because I've been really interested in science communication for my whole life, but finding a way to integrate that in my career has been a lot harder because it's just not the sort of thing that's supported with dollars or rewarded in that way. And I think providing some structure and funding resources to actually build out these programs to recognize that this is part of the value proposition.  

Anne Chappelle: Well, that's also the role of these professional societies, I think, that is changing. We are recognizing that we can't just teach people about fertility studies in a Continuing Education program. That, for many people, they don't have an opportunity through an organization that they work for or where they are to have access to good scientific training. And so I think that there is a role for those kinds of professional development classes being hosted and supported by different societies. 

Ilona Jaspers: I completely agree with you, and it's—you know, there's a new buzzword. It used to be like "translational research"; then it was "cross-disciplinary research”; and now it's "convergence science," right? That's the new buzzword.

David Faulkner: I’ve neverheard this. 

Ilona Jaspers: OK,so convergence science is a big buzzword, where you're truly bringing together disciplines that would normally not be working together. I'm not talking about genetics and biochemistry; that's sort of like a gray zone of the same thing. But I'm talking about things like journalism and science, or musical art or art and biology. So that's where you are really taking advantage of right brain and left brain and bringing them together to attack a problem.

And I think science communication is perfect for that. So you do want to bring together journalism. You do want to bring together education. You do want to bring together English. You do want to actually bring together comp sci, computational science, and animation, because we are in a very virtual and visual environment now—so bringing those people in to help you really visualize your science. That's where I think, you know, you could make it exciting and really sort of elevate scientific communication to the next level.

We need to work more with urban and regional planning. Because that's eventually who can have an impact on public health. So I think we need to, they need to understand, air pollution is this, but you also have pollen, and so, you know, sort of, integrating with regional and urban planning. 

Anne Chappelle: Overall, what would you say is kind of the state of inhalation tox as a part of a toxicology and pharmacology discipline.

Ilona Jaspers: I think we are a little bit on a crossroad here because there's the traditional inhalation toxicologist, who will basically argue until the cows come home whether installation is a better method than inhalation. And then you have this, sort of, let's call them progressive or modern inhalation toxicologists, who are, you know, sort of accepting the limitations of an exposure system, but are really digging into disease models, genetic, permutation, really sort of really molecular tools where you have a cell type–specific knockout for a particular gene to understand the role of that mediator in the overall toxicity response. So I think we still need to understand, we still need to teach the classic inhalation toxicology. We need to make students and trainees understand there's a difference between inhalation and installation, and it causes very different dosimetry and depositions.

But at the same time, let's also borrow all of the great tools, all of the advanced tools, that have been developed by others—lung-on-a-chip, organ-on-a-chip, in silico analysis, 3D cell culture models, all of those things. Let's bring those into inhalation toxicology without ignoring the classical dogmas. 

Anne Chappelle: One of the things you talked about that I thought was brilliant in terms of this convergence science is around the idea of involving urban and regional planners into the environmental health area. Could you expand upon that, especially in terms of how you think it might improve overall respiratory health? 

Ilona Jaspers: So, some of this is actually going on with some of my colleagues here on the UNC campus. And a lot of this comes from the knowledge that stress actually affects very much how we respond to pollutants. I mean, we're all like on the edge right now.

David Faulkner: Oh, no. This is bad news. 

Ilona Jaspers: Really, really bad. Animal exposures have actually shown us if we induce any kind of stress, like sleep deprivation, noise, heat, anything like that, you're actually enhancing a sort of otherwise normal response to a pollutant. So stress in the urban and regional planning can—you know, this is not my field—but can be alleviated with green space, with parks. So can you actually alleviate your stress level and therefore your potential response to a pollutant?

In addition, obviously, we know trees are great filters for a lot of the pollutants, the air pollutants, so, again, we need to talk to these regional and urban planners. Near-road effect clearly has been established, where people who are living near a major highway seem to be more affected by pollutants than people who are not. Is this because they're exposed to more pollution, or is this also because they have noise stress as well as other stress?

So those kinds of things need to be included in regional and urban planning. And the other thing, too, that is part of this that I have now become more and more aware of is a lot of the health disparities come from a lack of awareness among regional and urban planning, and sort of really including all of this.

So, and we all are aware that, minority communities are disproportionally affected by environmental stressors. So that's where the regional urban planning comes in as well. So regional urban planning has just a lot, a lot, of potential roles and we just don't traditionally talk to them.

Anne Chappelle: How exciting, though. You make me want to go back to school and be around all of these really interesting, diverse people that have all of these kind of wackadoo ideas, but there's a place for them to integrate some of these different strategies. I think it's really exciting and that kind of campus that you happen to have is wonderful for that. 

When you don't have that, how can you really get involved, potentially, you think, or are there any thoughts in terms of how to keep that momentum and excitement about sharing your skills, sharing your knowledge, you know, to promote the science? 

Ilona Jaspers: The Society of Toxicology as a potential conduit, it really could bear some really interesting fruit. You know, rather than inviting the same people over and over again for Symposia, get outside the box. Have a regional, urban planner; have someone from the community, a community organizer; have someone who actually knows about the inhalation, the environmental threats. So really have, like, a holistic approach to a particular problem.    

David Faulkner: I'm really interested in this idea of just having, you know, a Symposium, but instead of the same person who's given the Symposium a bunch of times, you have a panel of a bunch of community organizers from different areas, geographic areas—you know, maybe a small town, a big city, a rural area, a reservation. I get the sense a lot of the time that there's a lot of research that's being done for a very small number of problems. And the universe of problems that could be researched is very large. Do we really know that we're prioritizing the best things? 

Ilona Jaspers: Fulfilling our own curiosity, that's basically what we're prioritizing on, rather than what is actually needed. What kind of gaps can my research fill that is important for the local, broader national, international community, rather than letting this drive by my own curiosity? So I think this sort of bi-directional communication between potential stakeholders and people who basically are struggling with knowledge gaps that we could potentially fill or already have filled, but they have not gotten the knowledge. What are the things that are of importance to them? And can we address them with the research that we have or the research capabilities we have? Those are the questions that could be coming from the community that could inform scientists like myself.

David Faulkner: Well, and I think it's a two-way street, too, because nobody knows the community better than the community. So there's a lot of information that they can give you. 

Ilona Jaspers: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Anne Chappelle: So in today's climate, though, where do you go to look for that information? Because part of what we have to do is teach people how to vet information, how to check your sources. So how do you find a way to communicate that where people trust you?

Ilona Jaspers: This is sort of like a self-inflicted wound to some extent. First of all, how do we gain trust in the general population? And then more importantly, there's even more mistrust amongst certain subpopulations, um, for absolute valid reasons.

So being the ultimate optimist that I am, I wonder whether we can sort of start from the very young, where eighth graders are terrifying because they are very direct and unfiltered, but they're also sponges. So one of the things that we have done in my lab—actually, one of my graduate students was absolutely phenomenal, and I love this idea—is actually bringing primary research into the classroom as a K-through-12 lesson, where the research has already been vetted and peer reviewed, so, you know, we're good there. But you are bringing the messaging to these kids. And then all of a sudden, they ask questions. It's like, well, I just learned about so-and-so in my statistics class, and, you know, have you heard about A, B, and C? They're very, direct. They're very unfiltered, organic in their questions. And I wonder whether that is another way of getting the science to the people is through actually classroom activities.

Anne Chappelle: If you weren't a tripod pillar of a scientist, what do you think you would be doing? 

Ilona Jaspers: Oh, I don't know. I don't know. You know, in eighth grade I wanted to be a lawyer, but I think I'm just too damn opinionated. So I don't know what I would do. I have no idea. I've never thought of that because I love what I'm doing. 

I think one of the take-home messages is that there's a lot more to science than experiments and publishing papers. There's a lot of need—more now than probably ever before—to train scientists in a very diverse and broad manner because they're needed. They're not just needed in the lab. They're needed in newspapers. They're needed in politics. There's no one in the House of Representatives or in the Senate that can actually translate research to his or her colleagues. There's a few economists, I think there's a physicist in the House, but there's no biomedical PhD.

Scientists are needed in a lot of different disciplines, so we need to train them accordingly to not just getting back into the lab and writing grants. That is absolutely important. And I'd love for everyone in my lab to go do what I do. But the reality is very few will, so we need to train them into the careers where they're needed.

David Faulkner: Absolutely. I totally agree. Just more interaction between scientists and people who are not scientists. It seems like it would be great.   

Well, thank you so, so much for talking the time to talk with us. We really, really appreciate it. It's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you. 

Ilona Jaspers: Thank you, guys. 

Anne Chappelle: And so concludes this season of Adverse Reactions.  

David Faulkner: We had a lot of fun, and we hope that you'll join us next season for another round of exciting interviews with fascinating people.

Anne Chappelle: And witty banter.

David Faulkner: The wittiest.

Anne Chappelle: That's all I have right now. 

David Faulkner: That's all we got, yeah.    

Anne Chappelle: Thank you, all, for joining us for this episode of Adverse Reactions, presented by the Society of Toxicology. 

David Faulkner: And thank you to Dave Leve at Ma3stro Studios.

Anne Chappelle: That's Ma3stro with a three, not an E.

David Faulkner: Who created and produced all the music for Adverse Reactions, including the theme song, "Decompose." 

Anne Chappelle: The viewpoints and information presented in Adverse Reactions represent those of the participating individuals. Although the Society of Toxicology holds the copyright to this production, it has, 

David Faulkner: definitely,

Anne Chappelle: not vetted or reviewed the information presented herein,

David Faulkner: nor does presenting and distributing this podcast represent any proposal or endorsement of any position by the Society.

Anne Chappelle: You can find out more information about the show at,

David Faulkner: and more information about the Society of Toxicology on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. 

Anne Chappelle: I'm Anne Chappelle.

David Faulkner: And I'm David Faulkner. 

Anne Chappelle: This podcast was approved by Anne's mom. 

Introduction to the Episode
Balancing Multiple Positions in Academia
Understanding Exposure Risks for the Lung
COVID-19 and Inhalation Toxicology
Sexy Lungs?
Abstract vs. Translational Research
The Need for Better Science Communication
The Emergence of Convergence Science
The State of Inhalation Toxicology
Convergence Science: Part Two
How to Prioritize Research Topics
If You Weren't a Scientist...
Episode Wrap-Up