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March 04, 2024

Graduate Scholars Program Funds UNMC Research Into Impact of Agrichemicals on Children's Health

By Duane Retzlaff 

About 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These agrichemicals have increased food production and reduced insect-borne diseases. But what are the environmental and health impacts for people who live in or near agricultural areas? 

Jabeen TaibaJabeen Taiba

A doctoral student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is delving into that very question. Jabeen Taiba will identify the counties in Nebraska and across the nation where the heaviest application of pesticides took place over the past 28 years, and then evaluate their association with pediatric cancer and birth defects, adjusting for factors such as income, race, and education. 

Taiba said previous research in Nebraska has examined exposure to waterborne agrichemicals such as atrazine and nitrates and its possible impact on pediatric cancer rates. Her study will expand on that by exploring the association between the most-used agrichemical mixtures and health outcomes. 

Her research is supported by the Graduate Scholars program at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Doctoral students within the NU System can now apply for the next round of Graduate Scholars funding. Applications are due March 31. The one-year fellowship, worth up to $25,000, supports research that touches on the development, education, and well-being of young children, prenatal to 8 years old. 

Learn more about the program and eligibility requirements  

Past scholars have used the funding to examine a wide range of topics related to early childhood, including health disparities, the early math skills of preschoolers, neuroscience research on primates, and the stress and anxiety felt by mothers of premature babies. 

Taiba, of Vijayawada, India, first trained in dentistry and worked as a dentist for a few years, but she wanted to have a wider health impact and gravitated toward research. She earned a Master of Public Health in epidemiology at the University of Cincinnati, and in 2020 came to UNMC, where she is studying environmental health. 

Taiba said her research project is focusing on agricultural chemical mixtures because “as individuals, you’re not just exposed to one chemical, but you are exposed to so many types of chemicals. Even in the food you eat, it’s not just grown using one chemical, they’re using so many things together.” 

Her project focuses on the 32 chemicals that were most commonly applied in Nebraska during the study period. 

“I would say there is a giant effect— association—between exposure to these chemical mixtures and pediatric health outcomes in Nebraska,” she said. 

Taiba said the Graduate Scholars program is a great opportunity for international students like herself, who are often barred from other funding sources. 

“I really appreciate how much they support the graduate students,” she said. “It makes me feel good and confident, and this motivates me to do bigger things. So, I am very much appreciative of the opportunity.” 

She hopes to defend her dissertation this summer. After that, Taiba would like to pursue a post-doctorate fellowship and continue doing research in environmental epidemiology. 

Duane Retzlaff is a communications associate at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, helping share the Institute’s work with educators, child care providers, parents, policymakers, researchers, and the general public. 
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