Robyn Gilden, PhD ’10, MS ’01, RN, assistant professor
Areas of expertise:
Gilden is an environmental community researcher who focuses on pesticide exposure and environmental health in early childhood learning environments.
The BIG Idea:
Gilden’s research aims to assess and reduce exposure to pesticides in children and pregnant women. Her most recent work, which was conducted in her role as an UMSON Dean’s Research Scholar 2017 - 19, focused on gestational pesticide exposure and child respiratory health outcomes. In that role, she was awarded $12,000 to pursue her project, “Determining the contribution of pesticides to asthma in children.”
Why does the research matter?
“The hypothesis is that pregnant women in Baltimore City are exposed to certain levels of gestational pesticide that is associated with adverse child respiratory health outcomes, such as risk of wheeze and later development of asthma,” Gilden explains.
Gilden’s research included a secondary data analysis of qualitative data from a birth cohort from the Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment (HOME) study, conducted by the Cincinnati Children’s Environmental Health Center. From this analysis, Gilden determined that organophosphate (a group of man-made insecticides) exposure, diet (measured by asking about daily fruit and vegetable intake), and certain genetic markers such as the PON1 gene (an enzyme involved with metabolizing pesticides) play a role in children’s respiratory outcomes. Using this information, she convened and followed a birth cohort in Baltimore with 11 women who were recruited during their second trimester of pregnancy.
Gilden identified pyrethroid pesticides 3-PBA (another group of man-made insecticides meant to be less toxic than organophosphates), but no organophosphate exposure during pregnancy among the cohort. At the babies’ one-month follow-up, they were still too young to determine respiratory outcomes, and as this was a pilot study using the Dean’s Research Scholar funds during the grant period, there was not an opportunity to follow the children any further. At the conclusion of the Dean’s Research Scholar period, microbiome and genetic lab data from the babies were used to inform an R01 grant submission to the National Institutes of Health, which would create a larger birth cohort in Baltimore with the ability to follow the children up to age 2.
Gilden is completing a pesticide exposure and children’s respiratory health outcome literature review to provide more data and justification for why researchers must examine prenatal pyrethroid exposure because of gaps in objective measures. “Most studies focus on postnatal exposure and are based off of self-reported questionnaires for both outcomes and exposures,” Gilden says.
Who does the research matter to?
Gilden’s research focuses on pregnant women who are exposed to pesticides and the children born following the exposure. This in turn impacts the nurses taking care of these women and children so they can proactively educate pregnant women on a healthy diet with adequate produce intake and on potential community pesticide exposures before conception and during pregnancy. With the data her research produces, Gilden seeks to impact policy changes aimed at reducing pregnant women’s exposure to pesticides to improve health outcomes for their children.
What are the clinical applications of the research?
“The goal is to develop enough information to show that there is a need for intervention with dietary recommendations to reduce exposure to pesticides and nurse-led technical assistance to implement integrated pesticide management, thereby reducing pesticide exposure to pregnant mothers and their fetuses and hopefully positively affecting the children’s respiratory health outcomes,” Gilden explains. Technical assistance could include having a nurse-led home assessment before pregnancy to assess for commonly used pesticides and suggest safer alternatives.
She also works with environmental health nonprofits to show how research results can provide the objective evidence needed to spur action and improve the health of those around us through policy change.
“I am an environmental community researcher, so my focus is on broader applications. I look at how I can make my work apply to more than just one population,” Gilden says. “How can we make things better through translation of research findings into policy? How can we make it apply to the whole country?”
Gilden credits her broader focus to the national organizations she works with, including the Children’s Environmental Health Network and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. “I want to make sure that my research can be translated into action and practice through advocacy and can be used stimulate more research," she says.