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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Trish Koman

Trish’s field is air pollution policy research. She served as an environmental scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for over two decades, developing federal policy focused on air pollution and most recently diesel emissions from marine ports. She says, “I always wanted to prepare students to be the next wave of environmental leaders. I’m interested in researching aspects of air pollution and climate change that can make a difference in people’s every day lives – there are so many unanswered questions.”

Trish is working to identify at-risk populations and develop theoretical frameworks and actionable tools related to air pollution policy. She explains, “Research needs to impact people in their everyday lives. Air pollution does that because of the widespread exposures. The U.S. has made significant strides in reducing exposure to ozone (smog) or particulate matter, but there are still significant challenges and gaps. The confluence of three major trends is my current focus: air pollution, the obesity epidemic with the negative impact on heart and lung function, and then add increased temperatures and extreme weather disruptions from climate change. This combination hasn’t been well studied. There is an increase in obesity prevalence in the U.S. and globally as sedentary lifestyles spread, bringing with it the negative health effects which affect the heart and lung. The cardiopulmonary systems are also the targets of air pollution and heat exposures. There are physiological reasons to believe that both air pollution and heat waves already affect obese and overweight populations, which may result in health disparities. I want to research the physiological effects of these types of environmental exposures to prevent chronic diseases.”

Through the Rackham Arts of Citizenship program, Trish worked with a group of students who share a desire to make an impact on the world. Trish says, “We want to take this gift of an education and use it in a real way. This program allowed me to expand my network of students who share these passions.” Trish already was involved in a project called Michigan Engaging Community Through the Classroom, which has a multidisciplinary approach that has integrated the classroom in the community. Specifically, she led a group of students who created a health impact assessment of the re-development options of the Willow Run plant. “There are nine government organizations with some kind of jurisdiction in the community. Through Michigan Engaging Community Through the Classroom, we brought in students from the School of Public Health, the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the School of Public Policy, and the College of Engineering, to understand the implications of re-development and how each discipline adopts different approaches. We wanted everyone to think about how these decisions affect public health.” The initial program was so successful that another two rounds are planned.

Her project has garnered significant attention at U-M, receiving a Transformative Learning for the Third Century grant and a Provost Teaching Innovation Prize. She says, “These successes might make it sound like things are easy in the academy, but nothing could be further from the truth. I'm never sure each semester if I'm going to be able to return the next time due to funding uncertainties. It makes it extremely difficult to build a long-term research or teaching agenda. As I learn about my fellow students' situations, I'm deeply struck by how tenuous the funding is for science right now. It is next to impossible for very bright and committed students to make it to that first rung to transition from student to scientist (postdoc) in the lab. It's even harder to transition from postdoc to scientist/faculty.”

As an Ann Arbor resident, U-M was an easy choice for Trish. She says, “My family is here, and there is this great university in my back yard with world class faculty doing incredible research.” After completing her doctorate, she hopes to pursue a faculty position. “As a second career student, I know why I’m back in school, what I’m doing, and what I want to focus on. Michigan is the perfect place to accomplish my goals.”

The biggest challenge after working in her field so long was the transition from business writing to academic writing. She found help at the Sweetland Center for Writing. “They walked me through the mechanics of a new style of writing; this is a great resource for students.”

Her return to academia hasn’t always been smooth, however. “My family is very supportive but has had to pick up more chores now that I’m in school. I’m still working as well, so that adds to the challenge.” To blow off steam, Trish is an avid runner. When asked what kind of runner she is, she laughs and says, “Well, my running shows that anyone can do it!”