New Faculty Member Highlight: Eric S Coker

Dr. Coker’s research interests are at the intersection of social determinants of health, population susceptibility, and environmental chemical exposures, and investigating how these factors combine to cause health effects and drive health disparities in maternal and child health. He is particularly interested in studying populations in urban environments; where numerous social and health inequalities coexist and where people are simultaneously exposed to multiple environmental stressors throughout the life-course. Dr. Coker brings together his expertise in epidemiology, environmental health and exposure science, advanced biostatistical methods, and spatial and field epidemiology to pursue environmental epidemiology studies domestically in the U.S. and internationally (e.g., East Africa). His research has focused on the health and developmental effects from prenatal exposure to air pollution mixtures and chemical pesticide mixtures, as well as joint exposure to the built environment, social deprivation, and air pollution.

Dr. Coker’s initial foray into environmental health research in Africa took place during his Global Health Master’s program where he studied malaria and adverse birth outcomes in Uganda. During his initial research in Kampala, it became clear to him that his graduate training and professional experience in air pollution research would be better served to studying the complex and emerging public health threat of ambient and household air pollution in Africa’s urban centers. Given this motivation, Dr. Coker pursued a global health postdoctoral fellowship where he was able to travel to Kampala and lead a large cross-sectional study investigating the respiratory health effects of household and outdoor air pollution among children living in urban slums. With this valuable field experience came the added benefit of establishing new international partnerships focused on air quality monitoring in Uganda and navigating different approaches for air pollution sampling in such a resource constrained setting. Dr. Coker is now leveraging this knowledge and experience to foster collaborations in Africa that involve using low-cost air quality sensors and IoT to help fill Africa’s large air quality data gaps as a way to both raise public and policy maker’s awareness of urban air pollution and to spur mitigation efforts on the continent.

Dr. Coker’s most important engagements are with the AirQo project in Kampala, Uganda and the Ghana Urban Air Quality Project (GHAir). Over the past three years he has worked in close collaboration with AirQo. AirQo is based out of the Computer Science department at Makerere University and is led by Dr. Engineer Bainomugisha. AirQo merges data science tools and the Internet of Things (IoT) with locally developed low-cost air quality sensors (LCAQS) to measure urban air quality at high spatial and temporal resolution. Together, they have developed a land use regression (LUR) model to predict the spatial distributions of daily ambient PM2.5 throughout the Kampala greater metropolitan area. In the course of his work with AirQo, they have validated the AirQo sensors against a reference-grade BAM-1020 air monitor co-located near the U.S. Embassy in Kampala and against a LCAQS such as the Clarity-node sensor developed in the U.S. Their LUR model also revealed the sources of urban ambient PM2.5 that are germane to the African context. Dr. Coker’s collaboration with AirQo has now translated into two large grant proposals that involve leveraging LCAQS, IoT, and data science tools to 1) mitigate exposure to air pollution in Kampala by targeting specific sources and behaviors at the household-level, 2) advancing the use of LCAQS ambient air quality monitoring in Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, and 3) using IoT to raise public awareness of air pollution hazards in these regions of Africa.

Dr. Coker’s more recent engagement with the GHAir project in Ghana represents a branching out of his network and efforts to foster air pollution monitoring and mitigation in Africa using LCAQS. The GHAir project—run by Dr. A Kofi Amegah out of the University of Cape Coast—is a collaborator on the data science and LCAQS proposal mentioned above. Dr. Coker’s galvanizing efforts are beginning to be recognized internationally. For instance, Dr. Coker will be chairing a Symposium at the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology entitled “Air Pollution Assessment in a resource constrained world”, which includes Dr. Bainomugisha with AirQo and Dr. Amegah with GHAir, as well as air pollution researchers from Nigeria and Google (Dr. Keren Tuxen-Bettmen). This combination of speakers, in terms of multiple disciplines and approaches, is contributing important discussions around emerging sensing and communication technologies as creative ways fill air quality data gaps in Africa. These efforts will help galvanize momentum towards a unified understanding of the unique challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions to solving Africa’s emerging air quality problems.