Chandran Achutan, PhD: Assessing Exposure to Hazards at Work and in the Community

Spotlight on Research at COPH – Dr. Achutan’s research focuses primarily on exposure assessment and controls of chemical and physical hazards in the workplace and in the community. Dr. Achutan is currently evaluating an intervention strategy to get more farmers to wear hearing protection when working around loud noise. Farmers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise, mainly from farm equipment and from animals. Past research has identified barriers to wearing hearing protection (ear plugs and ear muffs) among farmers. The purpose of this intervention study is to prevent further hearing loss in farmers by increasing their access to hearing protection devices, by placing these devices near all major sources of noise on the farm.

Dr. Achutan is interested in exploring ways to combine teaching and research as well as service and research. Students in Dr. Achutan’s exposure assessment course have conducted studies looking at chemotherapy drug exposures among nurses, surgical staff’s exposure to surgical smoke, chemical exposures among janitorial staff, anesthetic gas exposures to dentists, and radon exposures in basement offices. Dr. Achutan is assisting a community partner in measuring and interpreting indoor air quality data in homes in low-income communities. Other service-research projects include occupational hazards to Hispanic workers, and looking at hearing loss and noise exposures among groundsmen.

Chandran Achutan, PhD, is an assistant professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Environmental, Agricultural, and Occupational Health.

Childhood obesity expert releases design guidelines for school environments

Terry Huang, PhD

Terry Huang, PhD

by Jo Giles, UNMC public relations
March 01, 2013

Since kids spend much of their day at school, obesity experts think school design can impact student health.

A UNMC obesity expert is the main author of a report – Healthy Eating Design Guidelines for School Architecture – released today in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Merging architecture with public health, it details how cafeterias, water fountains, gardens and signage play a key role in establishing a healthy environment.

“We know there is a direct link between student performance and student health,” said Terry Huang, Ph.D., chairman and professor of health promotion, social and behavioral health in the UNMC College of Public Health. “What we want to do is develop evidence-based principles of school design that optimize healthy eating and health practices.”

The guidelines were incorporated into the Buckingham County Primary and Elementary School in a rural, ethnically diverse school in central Virginia. The school district embraced the goal of creating an optimized ‘healthy eating’ learning environment in addition to the goal of creating an energy-efficient building.

picture disc.Some of the design principles incorporated include:

  • A food lab where kids can learn how to prepare healthy foods;
  • A cafeteria which facilitates fresh food production;
  • A school garden for kids to grow food for the school cafeteria and burn a few calories;
  • A lower-stress environment to address light, noise levels, air quality and crowding; and
  • Layouts that encourage more movement and the use of attractive water fountains.

“Our goal is to provide fresh, healthy food choices and support school spaces which promote healthy nutrition and health habits,” Dr. Huang said.

Researchers add that even simple changes like providing healthy grab-and-go meal options, avoiding deep-fat fryers and a library of health information and nutrition are improvements that schools can use to promote optimal health.

Ozgur Araz, PhD: Developing System Simulation Models to Inform Public Health Policy Decisions

Ozgur Araz, PhD

Spotlight on Research at COPH – Dr. Araz’s research focuses on developing system simulation models to analyze and understand the behaviors of complex systems and to inform policy decision making about complex public health issues. Simulation gives policy makers the ability to see the real-time impact of their decisions. As an industrial engineer trained in systems simulation and computational methods, Dr. Araz participates in various research projects in the College of Public Health (COPH) and collaborates with faculty from other colleges on campus. His recent work includes developing natural history models for prostate cancer, STDs, influenza, and obesity, in order to evaluate different public health strategies. Dr. Araz was also part of a research team with other faculty in the COPH and at UNL that addressed the health needs of a neighborhood in the urban Chicago area for sustainable development. That project was funded by the HDR company.

Dr. Araz also collaborates with the MIDAS (the NIH Modeling Infectious Disease Agents Study) research group at the University of Texas at Austin on developing decision support models for mitigating influenza pandemics and developing predictive models to forecast future epidemics. For example, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic forced school closures around the globe. Such actions can have negative economic and social effects. Dr. Araz and his research collaborators used a decision analytic approach and a mathematical model to estimate the effects of school closures in terms of epidemiological and financial costs. The findings from this research project highlight the importance of obtaining early estimates of pandemic severity and give public health decision makers guidance for effective school closure strategies in response to a flu pandemic. In another research project, Dr. Araz and his research team used a decision-making framework to evaluate and predict the most effective vaccine distribution policies during an influenza pandemic. His research articles have appeared in peer review journals, including Decision Support Systems, Healthcare Management Science, BMC Public Health, and Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

Ozgur Araz, PhD, is an assistant professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health.

Li-Wu Chen, MHSA, PhD, Research on Public Health Services and Systems

Li-Wu Chen, MHSA, PhD

Spotlight on Research at COPH – Dr. Li-Wu Chen’s main research interest is in public health services and systems research (PHSSR). He has directed and conducted several PHSSR projects that were funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). As the co-principal investigator of the RWJF-funded Nebraska Public Health Practice-Based Research Network, Dr. Chen has actively engaged various stakeholders from Nebraska’s public health practice and policy communities in the development, implementation, dissemination, and translation of PHSSR.

Dr. Chen has systematically studied the regional public health agency model in Nebraska. His research suggests that variation in macro contextual variables (e.g., demographic, geographic, and socioeconomic variables) among counties within a regional public health district is negatively associated with the performance of public health practice in regional local health departments (LHDs). For instance, the greater the variation in socioeconomic characteristics among a regional LHD’s member counties, the greater the challenge for the LHD to appropriately develop its public health policies and allocate resources equitably across its district. In addition, Dr. Chen’s research found that a regional public health partnership is most effective in optimizing the involvement of its partners because it is better able to leverage the partners’ strength and resources, and least effective in the domain of management because of challenges resulting from greater geographic distance and limited funding. In general, more effort is needed to maximize the collaborative potential of regional public health partnerships in Nebraska. Dr. Chen’s research has also shown that regional LHDs make resource allocation decisions on the basis of community needs, not on a formula or on individual county population size. The research findings also identified inadequacy and instability of funding as the two main funding challenges encountered by regional LHDs in Nebraska. These challenges may negatively impact the workforce capacity and long-term sustainability of an LHD’s programs.

Dr. Chen’s research uses an innovative approach (i.e., a programmatic area perspective rather than an occupational perspective typically used by researchers and policy makers across the nation) to assess the workforce capacity of Nebraska’s LHDs. This approach led to the finding that a significant proportion of Nebraska’s LHDs do not have staff dedicated to cover the areas of mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, and occupational safety. Using a shortage index estimation approach, his research also suggests that Nebraska’s LHDs experience the greatest workforce shortage in environmental health, followed by chronic diseases, health disparities, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Li-Wu Chen, MHSA, PhD, is a professor in, and the chair of, the UNMC COPH Department of Health Services Research and Administration.

Spotlight on the 2011-12 Mutual Fund and Collaborative Projects

Seven public health projects recently received support from the Mutual Fund and Collaborative Projects Programs in the COPH. A total of $110,000 was awarded by Dean Ayman El-Mohandes, MBBCh, MD, MPH, and the Great Plains Public Health Training Center. The COPH is firmly committed to the principles and practice of community engagement and collaboration as a means for promoting and protecting the public’s health. The Mutual Fund and Collaborative Projects programs can be leveraged to support public health activities across the spectrum: education, capacity building, and workforce development; service and essential supports; community-engaged research and translation; and policy development.

The projects are designed to stimulate collaboration between COPH faculty, students, and community partners to address existing and emerging public health issues that will ultimately improve access and health outcomes. “These start-up funds encourage meaningful and mutually beneficial initiatives to advance community health and well-being through trustworthy relationships between academia and the community. By leveraging these resources, communities locally and statewide will receive the greatest impact,” Dr. El-Mohandes said. The projects were selected following a review process and reflect a diverse portfolio of joint campus-community initiatives.

The 2012-2013 Mutual Fund recipients include the following:

The 2012-2013 Great Plains Public Health Training Center recipients include the following:


Characterization of Occupational Hazards and Social Justice Issues among Latino Workers in Omaha.

Dr. Chandran Achutan, assistant professor in the COPH Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health, and Mr. Sergio Sosa, executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, will co-lead this project. The UNMC COPH will partner with the Heartland Workers Center to identify the occupational hazards faced by Latino workers so that a more tailored approach for intervention is developed. Long term, the project aims to improve the health of Latino workers in Omaha by identifying the health and safety challenges faced by Hispanic workers in South Omaha through a Spanish questionnaire and by developing community service activities, including free hearing tests, and safety trainings. Mr. Sosa said that “The Heartland Workers Center hopes to continue working with the COPH to further develop the survey and execute it, in order to improve workplace health and safety. This grant is a great stepping stone to move this issue forward and to create a culture of safety.”

Regulating Alcohol Outlet Density to Reduce Excessive Alcohol Consumption.

A group of neighborhood leaders met at the Gifford Park Community Garden to work on a proposal to address alcohol outlet density through a local land use ordinance, setting a higher standard for business practices around alcohol sales and allowing the city more authority to address problem outlets.

Dr. Jim Stimpson, associate professor in the COPH Department of Health Services Research and Administration, and Ms. Diane Riibe, executive director, Project Extra Mile, will co-lead this project. The UNMC COPH will partner with Project Extra Mile to address the public health problem of alcohol outlet density as a way to reduce excessive alcohol consumption. The project will utilize GIS mapping systems to map liquor licenses, alcohol-related violations, and nuisance violations associated with alcohol-licensed establishments in Omaha and Nebraska City. The mapping will help identify high violation history and high alcohol outlet density to assist police resources in reducing hot spots of alcohol abuse and related issues.

According to Ms. Riibe, “Over the past 20 years, alcohol outlets in Nebraska have grown at a rate nearly twice as fast as that of the state’s population, creating an overconcentration of alcohol outlets and increased alcohol-related problems in communities in the state. Numerous studies confirm that neighborhoods with a higher concentration of alcohol outlets experience higher rates of alcohol consumption, resulting in increased alcohol-related traffic crashes, assaults, homicides, and child maltreatment, among other crimes.” Ms. Riibe said that she and her staff are “looking forward to the partnership with UNMC to create a local data tool that can be used to educate community leaders on this important issue and be used by communities to advocate for change.” In addition, Margie Magnuson of the Alcohol Impact Coalition, one of the groups in Omaha that will utilize the information from the project to make real change in the community, said that “This collaborative project between UNMC and Project Extra Mile will help neighborhood leaders bring research and data related to alcohol outlet density from our own communities to the table as we work to create safer and healthier neighborhoods for people to live, work, and raise their families.”