Breath Is Life

As a high school senior, Katie Morey recalls visiting a Midwest Native American reservation, where she met a family who had lost a young child due to asthma complications.

Knowing the dire consequences of unchecked asthma, at Rutgers Katie seized the opportunity to take on an unconventional research project to help sufferers better manage the disease.

Connecting Research and Service

“It shocked me that in the 21st century a child can die from asthma, considering it’s a manageable disease,” says Katie, a junior at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) at Rutgers–New Brunswick.

That thought stayed on her mind as Katie embarked on a unique asthma and lead poisoning prevention research project. With the help of her honors program faculty mentor Mark Robson, dean of agricultural and urban programs at SEBS, Katie connected with GreenFaith, a New Brunswick-based nonprofit organization, through the Aresty Research Center’s Summer Science Program.

“Rutgers has taken me on an incredible journey and has provided me with so many fantastic faculty and student mentors. I’ve found so many opportunities,” says Katie. “Dr. Robson has been a great source of support and advice.”

During the internship with GreenFaith, Katie, a double major in plant science and agriculture and food systems, spent the summer reviewing health, social science, religious, and environmental research to create the Breath Is Life Asthma Toolkit and the Lead Poisoning Prevention Toolkit.

Creating Useful Tools

First conceived by environmental health advocates at GreenFaith and geared toward houses of worship in the African-American community, the toolkits provide information to help parishioners better manage asthma and prevent lead poisoning.

The Breath Is Life Asthma Toolkit offers a collection of environmental health information and resources, and includes case studies, glossaries, pastoral information, lesson plans, doctor and caregiver checklists, and more. The toolkit is print-ready and available for download on GreenFaith’s website. The Lead Prevention Toolkit will offer similar prevention resources, once completed.

“We know that asthma is an increasing epidemic among all communities; however, it disproportionately affects African-American and Hispanic communities, which experience higher death rates and more hospital stays due to the disease,” says Stacey Kennealy, GreenFaith’s director of certification and sustainability and a Rutgers Cook College alumna. “It’s vital that these communities receive the information they need.”

Experiential Learning

As part of the project, Katie presented the asthma toolkit at the universitywide Undergraduate Research Symposium, hosted by the Aresty Research Center. The annual event gives student researchers the opportunity to present their findings to the broader Rutgers community and the public.

“Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about asthma. I used the Rutgers University Libraries databases quite a bit. I also used a lot of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency resources. Their lead safe campaign provided the inspiration for our handouts,” says Katie.

While the research portion has ended for Katie, the next phase of the program will begin next year: GreenFaith is planning an outreach campaign targeting houses of worship in New Jersey to ensure they are aware of the toolkit.

“The asthma toolkit was designed to be adaptable. So, the various handouts allow churches to use the information in ways that are best for them, such as putting it on informational tables or using it during workshops,” says Kennealy.

“If even one parent gets the toolkit and is able to recognize the signs of an asthma attack and is able to get their child help, then the project will have been worth it,” says Katie.

“I chose Rutgers because I knew I would be able to get a well-rounded education. The Aresty Research Center program is incredible; it’s allowed me to start my research work early,” says Katie. 

Toward a Career in Discovery

With plans to obtain a doctoral degree, Katie looks forward to publishing her first article about hazelnut research in spring 2013. “It’s exciting to be a part of the cutting-edge research happening in the Hazelnut Breeding Program, led by Dr. Thomas Molnar,” says Katie. “The hands-on experience is extraordinary; from working with trees in the field to studying tree fungus in the lab.”

In addition to continuing plant science research, Katie serves as an Aresty Peer Instructor, providing guidance to students who are participating in Aresty’s Research Assistant Program.

Katie discusses her asthma research with RU-tv