Feng-Chiao Su, PhD (PhD ’13)

Feng-Chiao Su

From a young age I knew that I wanted to work in academia and to do research. While I was trained as a high school teacher in my undergraduate program, I soon realized that research was more appealing and meaningful to me. So after completing my masters program in Occupational Medicine and Industrial Hygiene in Taiwan, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree abroad. In order to broaden my area of expertise, I applied to the PhD program in Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan (UM), which is one of the world’s leading public health programs. My dissertation research at UM examined exposure to volatile organic compounds known as VOCs, which are pollutants that each of us frequently encounters both at home and in the workplace as gasoline vapors, solvents, waste materials, and other chemicals.

I am now working as a postdoctoral scholar examining the linkage between exposures to pesticides and other chemicals and the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This research is important because ALS is a very aggressive, fatal disease. Unfortunately, there is no cure and current medications only briefly delay the disease’s progression. In order to help support this research, I applied to COHSE’s Pilot Project Research Training (PPRT) program and received funding for a study entitled “Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Occupational Risk Factors: Analysis of the University of Michigan ALS Patient Repository Database.” My study examined occupational exposures in a group of Michigan adults by comparing self-reported occupational history with exposures measured using biomarkers in blood samples. My PPRT project showed that occupational exposures to pesticides were linked to ALS in a case-control study. Additionally, pesticide concentrations in blood and ALS are correlated, which suggests that exposure to pesticides is a significant risk factor for ALS.

Both my doctoral program and my PPRT project have strengthened my research skills and provided me with access to some amazing datasets. During the remainder of my postdoctoral position, I will continue to learn new exposure assessment and statistical methods and apply them to critical public health questions. The need for this work is very high because public awareness of health issues has risen, and people pay more and more attention to the quality of their lives, their workplaces, and their living environments. After my postdoctoral position, I plan to continue my research in a university, government agency, or research institute.