Former NIEHS predoctoral fellow Kaitlyn Gam, Ph.D., has received the prestigious Tulane 34 Award, in large part due to her work on the Gulf Long-term Follow-up (GuLF) STUDY. The goal of the NIEHS-led initiative is to examine the potential health effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Gam is now transitioning to a postdoctoral fellow position at NIEHS.
Gam was honored at a ceremony May 17 at Tulane University. Named for the year in which the university was founded, 1834, Tulane 34 is among the most coveted university-wide student honors given to students. It is presented to only 34 graduates each year.
“Kaitlyn exemplifies the spirit of the Tulane 34 Award,” said Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Department of Global Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Lichtveld oversaw Gam’s graduate studies as her advisor at Tulane and nominated her for the award.
“In her time as a master’s and doctoral student, Kaitlyn has not only excelled academically, but has also demonstrated a deep commitment to service and leadership, both on campus and representing Tulane at NIEHS,” Lichtveld said.
During her time at NIEHS, Gam received a prestigious Student Workshop Travel Award from the Society for Epidemiologic Research in 2017. Her research was also recognized with the William R. Harley, Sc.D. Award for Excellence in Environmental Health Sciences in the Department of Global and Environmental Health Sciences, at Tulane.
Tracking health after the oil spill
As a participant in the NIEHS Predoctoral Intramural Research Training Award Program, Gam conducted her dissertation research under the guidance of Dale Sandler, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. Sandler is also lead researcher on the GuLF STUDY, which is the largest study ever conducted on the potential health effects of an oil spill.
Two publications co-authored by Gam, Lichtveld, with Sandler as the senior researcher, shed light on the health consequences of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The researchers assessed the lung function of thousands of cleanup workers one to three years after the oil spill.
One study, published January 31 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found no difference in lung function associated with exposure to total hydrocarbons (measured as total petroleum hydrocarbons), which is a measure of the volatile mixture of crude oil components. Preliminary analysis of these results earned Gam a best poster award as a 2014 summer intern.
Another study, published in the May issue of the journal Epidemiology, found no difference in lung function between oil spill response workers and non-workers. However, the team did observe a small decrease in lung function among decontamination workers compared with support workers. Moreover, workers with high potential exposure to burning oil or gas had reduced lung function compared with unexposed workers.
“To our knowledge, these studies are the first to examine lung function among Deepwater Horizon oil spill response workers, and the largest to examine lung health in individuals working in remediation efforts following a major oil spill,” said Gam. She was the first author of both studies and will continue to focus her research on this topic. A third paper from her dissertation that focuses on stressful clean-up experiences has been submitted for publication.
“I am honored to receive recognition from Tulane University for my doctoral work on the GuLF STUDY,” Gam said. “I attribute this achievement to the exceptional mentorship provided by both Dr. Sandler and Dr. Lichtveld, and to the high-quality training opportunities provided at NIEHS.”
Gam KB, Kwok RK, Engel LS, Curry MD, Stewart PA, Stenzel MR, McGrath JA, Jackson WB 2nd, Jensen RL, Lichtveld MY, Miller AK, Sandler DP. 2018. Exposure to oil spill chemicals and lung function in Deepwater Horizon disaster response workers. J Occup Environ Med; doi:10.1097/JOM.0000000000001292 [Online 31 January 2018].
Gam KB, Kwok RK, Engel LS, Curry MD, Stewart PA, Stenzel MR, McGrath JA, Jackson WB 2nd, Jensen RL, Keil AP, Lichtveld MY, Miller AK, Sandler DP. 2018. Lung Function in Oil Spill Response Workers 1-3 Years After the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Epidemiology 29(3):315–322.
(Janelle Weaver, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)