Dean’s 2020 Pilot Innovation Award Winners Announced

August 31, 2020

The Rollins School of Public Health is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2020 Dean’s Pilot Innovation Awards. These awards, ranging in sum from $20,000 to $50,000, will go toward supporting full-time junior faculty with projects that are new, highly innovative, currently unpublished and unfunded, and that possess the potential to lead to larger extramural grants. Winners will receive their funding for a full calendar year starting September 1, 2020. Below are the project descriptions and faculty being recognized with this year’s innovation awards.

Understanding the Biological Consequences of Air Pollution on the Brain by Analyzing DNA Methylation and Neuropathology

Researchers:  Anke Huels, PhD, MSc, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology with a joint appointment in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health; and Thomas Wingo, MD, assistant professor of neurology and human genetics, at Emory University






Project Summary: Outdoor air pollution from traffic, power plants, and other industries is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world. Recent studies have shown that air pollutants can also affect our brain and increase the risk for dementia, a cognitive decline that affects behavior and thought processes. However, a central and unsolved question is, “How do air pollutants affect our brain?”

This study will analyze associations of air pollution exposure with neuropathology and epigenetic markers (DNA methylation) in 400 human postmortem brains from the Emory University Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Neuropathology Core Brain Bank. The results of this study will provide data on the consequences of air pollution on neuropathology – a biological pathway that has been hypothesized for over a decade, but for which only very little data has been generated.

Furthermore, the study will provide novel estimates for the relationship between air pollution and DNA methylation in brain tissue, a relationship that has not been studied before. Consequently, this study will improve the understanding how air pollution affects our brain, which is an important piece of information for prevention strategies. 

Evaluating low-cost methods for decontamination of N95, surgical, and cloth masks 

Researchers: Ajay Pillarisetti, MPH, PhD, assistant professor in the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health; and Pengbo Liu, MPH, PhD, research assistant professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health

AjayPillarisetti.jpg   PengboLiu.jpg

Project Summary: The global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE)—including surgical masks, N95 filtering face-piece respirators, gloves, and gowns—has been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic. PPE serves as a first line of defense for health care workers and can play an important role in helping slow the transmission of airborne pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. This project focuses on two PPE-related aspects of the current pandemic. First, the researchers will survey health care workers and facilities globally on their supply of PPEs and usage practices. Next, they will evaluate methods for decontaminating cloth, surgical, and N95 masks that may be relevant for low-resource settings. Taken together, their findings can help optimize resource allocation and extend the use of existing supplies of PPE using decontamination methods suitable for low-resource settings.

Impact of Electrical Cardioversion on Cognitive Function in Atrial Fibrillation

Researcher: Amit Shah, MD, MSCR, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology






Project Summary: Atrial fibrillation and cognitive dysfunction are common problems in older adults that reduce quality of life and increase the risk of poor clinical outcomes. Recent evidence suggests that improved management of atrial fibrillation may lead to improved cognitive dysfunction. This project will study the impact of electrical cardioversion, or restoration of normal rhythm, on cognitive function in atrial fibrillation, as well as its impact on blood pressure and quality of life. This will help to guide management of atrial fibrillation and inform the risks versus benefits debate of performing aggressive management tactics aimed at restoring normal rhythm. If a strong relationship between electrical cardioversion and cognitive function is found, this will be helpful in guiding clinicians who are treating atrial fibrillation and potentially help to reduce their risk of dementia. 

A Smartphone App to Measure Women’s Time Use in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

Researcher: Sheela Sinharoy, PhD, research assistant professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health






Project Summary: Data from around the world has long shown that women do more unpaid care work each day than men. Understanding women’s time burdens is important, but accurately measuring how people spendtheir time each day can be difficult. This project will seek to adapt a smartphone app called TimeTracker and use it in four countries – Guatemala, Peru, India, and Rwanda – to measure women’s time use. The app is entirely pictorial, meaning that it doesn’t require any literacy or even access to a clock. The researchers expect that using this app will enable them to measure women’s time use more easily and accurately than has been possible in the past, without requiring women to fill in time diaries or sit through tedious surveys.

Getting accurate data on women’s time use is especially important now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as women’s time spent on unpaid care work has increased, while their time spent on paid work has decreased. The goal of the project is to gather better data on women’s time burdens with the hope that it will inform future interventions and policies to support childcare and women’s employment.