Research News

Grad student receives American Heart Association fellowship


Undergraduate English and political science major

Published March 24, 2022

“Epidemiology is the perfect field for me because I can design studies to investigate determinants of health and contribute to strategies for disease prevention. ”
Kexin Zhu, graduate student
Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health
Kexin Zhu.

Epidemiology graduate student Kexin Zhu is the recipient of an American Heart Association (AHA) Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, an award designed to advance research and clinical training of pre-doctoral or clinical health professional students aiming to improve cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and brain health studies.

Zhu primarily researches the impacts of air pollution on health outcomes, such as pregnancy complications, birth outcomes and cardiovascular disease. She will receive an annual stipend and project support worth $32,036 for one year.

“Epidemiology is the perfect field for me because I can design studies to investigate determinants of health and contribute to strategies for disease prevention,” says Zhu, who was born in China and came to UB in 2018.

Zhu’s objective is to explore the critical gaps of knowledge regarding the impact of outdoor temperature and air pollution on blood pressure levels and hypertension.

Hypertension, known as high blood pressure, costs the United States about $131 billion each year, and could put people at risk for heart disease and stroke, which are among the leading causes of death in the country.

“Hypertension is a chronic disease that affects one out of two adults in the United States,” she says.

In the age of the combustion of fossil fuels and industrial emissions, inhaling pollutants is an inevitable threat to health, in particular, cardiovascular health. Not only does air pollution contribute to adverse health conditions, it is a primary factor impacting climate change through the production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which significantly increase the global temperature. Although there has been growing concern that climate change can cause serious health consequences for people with heart conditions, research on the impacts of outdoor temperature and air pollution on hypertension is still limited.

Zhu will analyze data from the Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial to determine whether climate change and air pollution relate to high blood pressure and hypertension. The Women’s Health Initiative clinical trials recruited 68,132 women aged 50-70 between 1993-98 from 40 clinical centers in the United States.

“We will examine if the outdoor temperature is related to changes in blood pressure over the time, and whether long-term temperature exposure could affect the development of hypertension,” Zhu says.

“In addition, we will explore if the impact of outdoor temperature on hypertension is stronger among women with higher exposure to air pollution. The study will address critical gaps in knowledge of the impacts of outdoor temperature on blood pressure levels and hypertension. The results will potentially inform policymakers to prevent hypertension by slowing down the temperature increase and improving air quality.”

Zhu says she decided epidemiology was her calling while interning at a hospital in China and completing her bachelor’s degree in preventive medicine.

“I realized the importance of identifying factors that give rise to diseases and preventing diseases at a population level,” she says.

She recommends those interested in a career in epidemiology “challenge” themselves by being intellectually diverse.

“Learn many different skills and collaborate with people from a wide range of backgrounds,” Zhu advises. “This will open doors for new opportunities and make your experience more meaningful.”