Students will be grouped into teams of 3-4 students to work jointly on a project to investigate an environmental agent for which there is reason for concern about possible adverse health effects for human populations. The investigation will center on concepts developed during the term, with emphasis on relating environmental exposures and toxicological mechanisms to quantitative risk assessment of potential health effects.
Project Topic Selection and Approval
In Lecture 4, the class will be grouped into teams with the aim of team diversity for academic backgrounds and experience. Each team should then decide on a topic for its project and submit the topic proposal to Prof. Sherley by 5 p.m. on Lecture 9. The topic should be an environmental agent(s) of recent or current notice that poses a significant potential impact on the health of human population(s). Examples of possible topics are: cell phones and brain cancer; endocrine disrupters; food additives; diesel exhaust and asthma incidence; a disease cluster associated with a specific chemical. Do not select a chemical or agent discussed in class. Ideally, choose a topic on the basis of a recent report(s) in major lay-media such as newspapers, radio talk shows, news magazines, television news, or web alerts.
By 5 p.m. on Lecture 9, teams must submit a one-page proposal of their project outlining the specific responsibilities of each team member for the final report components (see component details below). The proposal should be submitted to Prof. Sherley. Project proposals will be reviewed by all three professors. Students will be notified of approval decisions as soon as possible. If a proposal is found to be unacceptable, a team will have until the beginning of class on Lecture 11 to develop an acceptable proposal. Teams are highly encouraged to confer with professors and the TA regarding the acceptability of possible topics before submission of their proposals.
During the last half of the course, teams must schedule at least two meetings with the TA or Professors to discuss progress on their project. Notify Prof. Sherley after each of these meetings has occurred. Both meetings must be completed before Lecture 22. Failure to schedule these meetings will result in a 20% reduction for the final project grade. These meetings need not be lengthy. Ideally, all team members should attend, and teams should bring relevant information and questions/problems they may have encountered during the development of their project paper and presentation. In addition, the team should prepare a brief update of progress on the project.
Each team is expected to develop a paper that provides an in-depth analysis of their project topic. More is expected than a book report or review. The paper should entail a critical evaluation of the quality, credibility, and substance of readings and information sources, and arrive at a final position regarding the topic. This position should specifically address the question of whether the topic agent is likely to be responsible for an adverse human health outcome. The final position of the paper should be based on a critical assessment of available data, information, and principles of epidemiology, biostatistics, and toxicology developed in the course. The paper should also consider important factors that may influence public opinion and health policy regarding the topic agent.
The paper should be at least 20 double-spaced pages (no more than 25) inclusive of: (1) a cover page with title (that succinctly states the topic) and team member names; (2) an abstract/summary page; (3) main text; and (4) references. All team members are expected to participate in writing the main text of the paper, with each member taking responsibility for the development of a different main section. The organization of the main text is left to the discretion of each team, but the following 5 components should include in all reports.
- Discussion of the environmental history of the topic agent. The accuracy of historical records or accounts of the topic agent should be critically evaluated.
- Discussion of the known or proposed toxic mechanism of the topic agent. The quality and rigor of cited journal articles should be critically evaluated.
- Discussion and position on the case for a cause-effect relationship between the topic agent and adverse human health effects. The quality and interpretation of key epidemiological studies and biostatistical analyses should be evaluated. An exhaustive meta-analysis should not be produced. From thorough research, students should identify and discuss the main research articles that have driven current views on the topic. However, papers, which may be cited less often, that counter the conclusions of key “thought-leader papers” should also be considered.
- Critical evaluation of lay-media reports and public opinion regarding the likelihood that the topic agent is an environmental toxicant that poses a risk for adverse human health effects.
- Evaluation of government regulations for use of the topic agent and exposure limits.
The goal of the team effort is to produce an integrated, cohesive, critical evaluation of the potential environmental health impact of the selected topic agent. Simply pasting together individual blocks of information is undesirable. The following strategy should be adopted: Agree on individual responsibilities; do the individual research; discuss findings in team meetings; integrate ideas; write sections; assemble sections; everyone review preliminary drafts to refine integration and continuity; finalize; and submit.
References should be cited in the text and organized in the reference section numerically in order of appearance. The format for the references should include: for journal articles - authors (list up to five; thereafter use et al.), article title, year, journal, volume, and pages; for books - same as journals with addition of book title, editor(s), edition, publisher, publication city; and for websites - URL, organization posting the website, year produced, authors (if known).
The Final Presentation
Each presentation should be targeted for 15 minutes, with all members of the team sharing approximately equally in the presentation. Expect to have your presentation curtailed by Prof. Sherley if it runs longer than 17 minutes. At 15 minutes, you will be given a 2-minute warning for ending. The remaining time (8-10 minutes) is reserved for your team to address questions from the instructors and classmates. Transparencies and the chalkboard may be used for graphics, but no forms of computer projection are allowable.
Following are example final team project papers, presented courtesy of the authors, used with permission.
Rupali Avasare, Christina Fuentes, and Lynn Ngo. “An investigation into the supposed link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.” (PDF)
Lisa An, Sueann Lee, and Erin Mathewson. “Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs) and Childhood Leukemia.” (PDF)