MPH, Environmental Health
Katie Pearce has her eyes on the little things in life.
Tiny molecules of manipulated chemicals to be exact. Known as nanotechnology, they are used to improve everyday products from spray-on sunscreen to odor-resistant fabric.
“More and more nanotechnology is being used in consumer products without much regulation,” Pearce said. “There’s all new chemicals and formulations being used, and I’m interested to see how they could affect our health and the environment later on.”
Prior to earning her master’s degree in environmental health, Pearce had not heard of nanotechnology. She did have a keen interest in microbiology, with an undergraduate degree in cell biology and biotechnology, and a love for the environment.
“I’ve always been environmentally conscious,” Pearce said. “Since I was young, I’ve been big on recycling and conserving water.”
After meeting nanotechnology researcher and environmental health professor Christa Watson Wright during graduate orientation, Pearce was intrigued and soon began studying nanomaterials with her in the lab.
For her thesis, Pearce tested make-up products containing aerosolized titanium and iron oxide, which are nanomaterials that could be inhaled by people who use them. Her research indicated that darker shades of make-up contained more of the nanomaterials, which showed signs of being toxic and damaging to cells in the respiratory system. That means people with darker skin tones, who are more likely to use darker shades of make-up, may also be more likely to encounter adverse health effects related to the nanomaterials.
“I don’t wear make-up anymore,” Pearce said, “but it does make me think about what I am using in my everyday life.”
And while nanotechnology can make products cheaper or more effective, Pearce said she wants to be on the front line of making sure they don’t also cause any unintended health consequences.
“Most people like innovation. They want the newest thing and may not be concerned about prolonged exposure,” she said. “There’s just not enough testing yet to show what the long-term effects are.”
—Story by Kathleen Baydala Joyner