Quinnipiac professors work with nonprofit to discover how the environment plays a role in our health

Krystal Miller, Associate News Editor

Environmental toxins impact an individual’s health, especially for those with the autoimmune disease lupus — that’s why two Quinnipiac University professors are devoting their time to research solutions that increase understanding of environmental impacts on immune health. 

Approximately 1.5 million Americans have some form of lupus, and there are an estimated 16,000 new cases each year, according to The Lupus Foundation of America. 

Infographic by Peyton McKenzie

As an effort to aid those diagnosed, professor of biology Courtney McGinnis and associate teaching professor of civil engineering Kimberly DiGiovanni partnered with a local nonprofit organization You Got This Kid! Leadership Foundation. The 501(c)(3) is based out of New Jersey. 

DiGiovanni received the YGTK! Foundation Environmental Leadership Award Oct. 17, for her contribution to their environmental conservation mission. 

“I was honored and surprised, I had no idea that I would be receiving that honor during the event and it was really something to receive,” DiGiovanni said. 

The mission of the foundation is to “Foster the development of young leaders through immersive learning experiences while driving positive change for those living with Lupus and for our environment.” It hosts speaking engagements, leadership lessons that can be integrated into school curriculum, and internships and student fellowships. 

“There’s three main goals I’ll say, we focus on environmental sustainability, so enhancing and improving that at the local community level,” McGinnis said. “Raising lupus awareness is the second and the last is to mentor students, individuals, and really build out their leadership skills and their skill set.” 

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect many parts of the body but the cause is unknown, according to the National Institutes of Health. It occurs when a person’s immune system attacks its own tissues and can cause inflammation and in some cases permanent tissue damage, the website states. 

McGinnis got involved with the foundation around January 2021 when she was having a meeting with the co-founder of YGTK!, Chuck Saia. 

Endocrine disruption, a type of environmental toxin, is what McGinnis is focusing her academic research on. While working with the foundation, she said she wants to discover how the environment intersects with lupus. 

Although lupus is not her research area, McGinnis said she considers herself as an environmental toxicologist. 

“That led me to environmental toxins and exposures and while we don’t understand what the root cause of lupus is, for an individual, we do understand that there are often environmental exposures that cause additional flare ups or that exacerbate somebody’s condition,” McGinnis said. 

The Medical School Curriculum Program is in collaboration with the foundation and Quinnipiac medical school. The environmental toxins’ effect on lupus activity was a part of the 2021 pre-matriculation program at Quinnipiac, which is a summer program for incoming first-year medical students. 

The program also includes listening to a panel of lupus patients’ experiences after being diagnosed, McGinnis said. The panel talks about topics such as lifestyle changes the patients have made. 

“I think the work that we do with the med students in particular on educating them about lupus and autoimmune diseases, and leadership is really important because they’re our next line of health care providers and making them aware of relatively rare diseases is important when they’re interacting with a patient or patient’s family in the future,” McGinnis said. 

DiGiovanni first got introduced to the nonprofit after the organization collaborated with the Mill River Watershed Association for the rain garden at the Albert Schweitzer Institute. 

The foundation has also partnered with nonprofit organization Save the Sound to transform a vacant lot in New Haven to a green infrastructure park. It is designed to catch water off the street when it rains and absorb into the ground. 

DiGiovanni said how the foundation’s mission aligns with the mission of the Mill River Watershed Association in supporting the environment. Along with advocating and supporting lupus research, DiGiovanni said the foundation also works with the Mill River which is 2.2 miles from Mount Carmel Campus and the Musconetcong River in Northern New Jersey. 

“I think it’s really important because the environment is something that we all benefit from,” DiGiovanni said. “Protecting the environment is important to human health as well as wildlife I mentioned, you know how much I enjoy the wildlife along the river. And I think connecting to our natural resources is really important.” 

Michael Ciacciarella, 2021 Quinnipiac graduate and former president of Quinnipiac’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said he took an ecological engineering class with DiGiovanni in the spring of 2020. 

Throughout the semester, the class worked on various designs for the rain garden at the Albert Schweitzer Institute. In spring 2021, ASCE got involved and worked on several projects at the institute. 

“So the purpose of the rain garden in the case of ASI was to have water instead of hitting the ground and heading down the hill, it would infiltrate into the ground in this rain garden,” Ciacciarella said. 

Ciacciarella said having projects such as the rain garden are important for the community because they can inspire others to build their own green gardens or think twice before polluting the river or a catch basin. 

“Professor DiGiovanni spearheaded all this and she was a big help,” Ciacciarella said. “That class in general got me super interested in protecting the environment and hydrology and drainage design similar to what I do at the moment at my work.”