An expert in the field, De Vizcaya-Ruiz brings over 18 years of expertise in toxicology, aerosol science, and nanotoxicity to the Program’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health
Q: What drove you to pursue a career in public health? Academia?
I was always interested in the natural sciences and biology. Anything that had to do with living things, really. After majoring in veterinary medicine as an undergraduate student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, I soon discovered toxicology, specifically how experimental in vitro (cellular) and in vivo (animal) models are used to understand health effects in human populations. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize that this was my passion.
I went on to pursue a doctorate degree in Toxicology from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Surrey in the U.K. Just as I was about to finish the program, I learned about two fascinating projects that colleagues were working on: the first was a study on ocean oil spills; and the second was a project presented at Annual Meeting of the Mexican Society of Toxicology that focused on the health effects of metal and pesticide exposure. I was drawn to the work of both teams and soon joined their efforts, excited by the prospect of contributing to an area of science that hadn’t previously been addressed in my home country of Mexico.
Initially, I wasn’t sure about staying in academia. I debated between becoming a clinician versus a researcher but chose the latter. Staying in academia gave me the opportunity to continue my toxicology research while sharing my passion with others through teaching and learning more about global environmental issues. I went on to spend the next 18 years teaching preclinical toxicology and toxicology mechanisms in the M.Sc. and Ph.D. Toxicology Program at Cinvestav, Mexico. I enjoyed every minute in the lab and in the classroom.
Q: What do you hope to achieve in the first five years of your UC Irvine tenure?
For starters, I’m excited to help advance the mission of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) and Air Pollution Health Effects Lab (APHEL). I look forward to helping introduce new types of research, especially given how quickly the biotechnology field is evolving. There’s been a lot of work done with animal models in the past 20 years, but we’re moving away from that and toward in vitro and other alternative models for exposure. I’m excited to be a part of similar ventures through both well-established research centers at UCI.
I’m also looking forward to introducing nanotoxicity and toxicology of advanced materials research to the Program in Public Health. For many years, air pollution was associated with the burning of fossil fuels, and it still is, but we’re learning that there are many new materials being produced that threaten public health. Microplastics, polymers, and fibers in our air, water, and food are all materials humans are exposed to daily, in their micro and nano form. And little attention has been paid to this issue so far. I’m eager to raise awareness through interdisciplinary public health research and practice at UCI.
Q: What are the crossroads that have come up between your work and the pandemic?
The pandemic has raised several interesting questions about susceptibility within the field of toxicology. If we’re always exposed to something, the body has less ways of defending itself and becomes more susceptible to infection. It’s the body’s response (or lack thereof) that makes you sick – not the infection itself. For example, I predict that a few years from now, we’ll start to see a lot of papers associating high levels of air pollution with higher rates of COVID infection, especially in dense, urban cities. We know that COVID travels as an aerosol, and there’s been a lot of debate about whether particulate matter (PM)–a type of environmental pollutant–acts as a vector for the virus. I was recently a part of a research team that investigated using animal models and found that poor air quality leads to more severe COVID-related illness, but not necessarily because the virus is in the particles. Ventilation helps, but it also allows the PM and other air pollutants in. This is just one of the many COVID-related applications to environmental and occupational health.
The pandemic has put public health center stage. Where does public health go from here? And how can higher education and institutes of learning help so we are in a better place moving forward?
The pandemic has obviously not been good for society or the world, but it has introduced public health as crucial to the environmental sustainability. It highlighted the need for more short- and long-term toxicology studies that help us better understand the different exposures we encounter on a regular basis that not only pose a threat to human health, but to the planet’s as well.
Higher education plays a critical role in advancing this knowledge through research. We’re training the next generations of practitioners and researchers who will not only inherit the planet we live in, but have incredible potential to make lasting, positive changes in how we take care of ourselves and the earth.
What do you enjoy most about teaching? What has been the most rewarding part?
I love how teaching forces you to always be on your toes–to always study, learn, and push yourself harder. I’ve enjoyed the time spent preparing for classes and trying to improve my ability to communicate information and new concepts to students effectively.
It’s also the interactions with students that make teaching so rewarding. Being able to discuss critical topics in toxicology and help others learn is something I have always enjoyed. As educators, our job isn’t finished when our students graduate. It’s when they graduate to navigating their own careers and use the knowledge and training you’ve provided them to give back to society in ways that are meaningful.
How has health equity overlapped with your work?
Health equity has always been an important component of my work. In toxicology, we always think about how exposures will affect different groups. When we design a study, we must consider what happens to different populations and focus on “real-life scenarios”. The field has historically relied on male animal models for research, except in cases where the studies were specifically about females. This is changing, but we have a long way to go in terms of female representation, because the
physiological responses may be different, there can be sex susceptibility and looking only at one sex, which is typically the male sex, can bias the data obtained and mask relevant toxic events.
Much of the work I’ve done with colleagues has also looked at community exposure to metals in water and wells. Underrepresented communities are often disproportionately impacted by this environmental health issue. The onus is on us as public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates to integrate health equity in all that we do.