Students Making Their Mark at NIOSH

Posted on by Julie Tisdale-Pardi, MA

Training the next generation of occupational safety and health specialists is a critical part of the NIOSH mission. Most training is done through the NIOSH supported Education and Research Centers (see related blog). In addition to these formal programs, each year NIOSH is fortunate to host student interns within the Institute. NIOSH staff give students a glimpse into the type of work conducted at NIOSH and the students’ work provides real benefit to NIOSH researchers. Summaries of many of the students’ work is provided below.

Air Management: Allowing Your Lifeline to be Your Lifeline

Colin Kelliher/NIOSH Project Mentors: Tammy Schaeffer, Steve Miles, Jeff Funke, Division of Safety Research

Air management is a key contributing factor in a number of NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program line-of-duty death reports. To address this problem, Colin Kelliher, an undergraduate student from the Catholic University of America, undertook a summer internship project on air management at the NIOSH Division of Safety Research. The project included a literature review that examined:

  • The textbook Air Management for the Fire Service for the purpose of examining valuable recommendations pertaining to air management by fire service experts.
  • Three levels of air management as identified and defined in several NIOSH line-of-duty reports (task, tactical, and strategic/command) and their application to the fire service.
  • Research on air management within Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) diving; intended to be used in comparing air management operations within the contexts of SCUBA diving and the fire service. This included a conversation with a subject matter expert on rescue diving.
  • Various “out of air emergency” related NIOSH line-of-duty death reports, compiling the key factors and their associated recommendations for air management-focused analysis.
  • The current edition of NFPA 1852, which pertains to Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) as well as changes being explored in upcoming editions.

The three levels of air management proved to be valuable in understanding the roles and responsibilities of individuals involved in out of air incidents. From this, the review found two overwhelmingly common contributing factors to out of air emergencies: training related to individual task level air management and air management at the strategic level by incident commanders. Based on his work, Colin developed the following recommendations for the NFPA 1852 committee to consider:

  • Develop a technology that records air usage data throughout a training exercise or incident to allow for analysis following SCBA usage to make the user more aware of how they use their air and can improve their air usage.
  • Develop affordable and accessible technology that provides an incident commander with a live view of air usage across the incident.

Addressing these two areas of focus is a complex, yet vitally important undertaking for the fire service. It is imperative that we give individuals the skills to use air management as a lifeline before they become the storyline. Colin found his internship rewarding and stated, “As an undergraduate engineering student at the Catholic University of America as well as a firefighter in the Washington D.C. metro area, it was a privilege to be able to work on a project which combined my two areas of interest. Not only did I gain the valuable experience of holding an internship within the STEM field, but I also learned enlightening lessons, which I can incorporate into my duties as a firefighter.”

Project Imhotep

To develop effective injury prevention programs that equitably address all workers, it is important to have an occupational safety and health workforce that reflects the diversity of the US workforce. Project Imhotep is an 11-week summer internship program designed to increase the knowledge and skills of underrepresented minority students in biostatistics, epidemiology, and occupational safety and health. The program begins with two weeks of intense educational training in public health courses such as Public Health & Health Disparities, Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Scientific Writing. Students in this program spend the remaining time in NIOSH laboratories and offices, getting hands-on experience in the field of research and assuring safety and health for all workers.

Helene Apollon | NIOSH Mentor: Viji Potula, Associate Director for Science Office

Helene Apollon is a rising senior majoring in Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University. Helene worked on two projects this summer. The first was to clearly define the eligibility criteria for the NIOSH Early Career Scientist Award. This award recognizes scientists early in their careers who have made outstanding contributions to scientific excellence at NIOSH. For the second project Helene performed a literature search on paid sick leave as a viable intervention strategy to prevent the risk of acquiring and transmitting COVID-19 and other diseases (influenza and other respiratory infections) among healthcare personnel in the workplace. This literature search will aid NIOSH researchers in writing the introduction and discussion section of an upcoming paper.

Miracle Ejidike | NIOSH Mentor: Angela Morley, Associate Director for Science Office

A rising senior at Emory University and accepted to a MA in Bioethics, Miracle focuses his studies on global health equity, global health law, social justice and addressing health disparities. His summer project was “Ethics Governance for Big Data Research in Public Health: A Model for the Future.” Via semi-structured interviews with organizational experts in data ethics, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and data protection policy, coupled with a literature review, he successfully identified ethical issues arising from Big Data research coupled with AI/ML and defined a practical model for ethics governance for CDC/NIOSH. He presented his findings, including a framework for assessing ethical considerations for AI applications, to interested parties within NIOSH and CDC.

Rodney Gross| NIOSH Mentors: Constance Franklin and Kellie Pierson, NIOSH Human Capital Office/Workforce Development Team

Rodney Gross is a rising junior from Morehouse College majoring in exercise kinesiology. Rodney worked very closely with the HealthiestNIOSH Program in researching and updating information related to substance use disorder, specifically, opioid misuse. The research will be used to update the HealthiestNIOSH presentation related to workplace awareness on substance misuse disorder and opioids.

The Division of Field Studies and Engineering (DFSE)

DFSE hosted interns through the ORISE Collegiate Leaders in Occupational Safety and Health (CLOSH) program and the Junior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (JRCOSTEP).

Rachel Zeiler | CLOSH intern, NIOSH Mentor: Barbara Alexander

Rachel Zeiler is a PhD candidate studying Environmental and Industrial Hygiene at the University of Cincinnati. This was Rachel’s third summer at NIOSH where she helped investigate trends in workers’ compensation claims in the landscaping services industry and measure vibration levels transmitted from leaf blowers. You can read more about some of Rachel’s work on this topic in another NIOSH Science Blog: Workers’ Compensation Data Sheds Light on Hazards in Landscaping.

Esther Ku | CLOSH intern, NIOSH Mentor: Chaolong Qi

Esther Ku is a mechanical engineering student at Ohio State University. Through the CLOSH internship she assisted Chaolong Qi with a research project titled “Engineering Control of Silica Dust from Stone Countertop Grinding and Polishing.” Esther gained experience conducting laboratory research studies in the wind tunnel to evaluate dust emissions and engineering controls that will result in reduced worker exposure to silica dust when cutting, grinding, and polishing different stone countertop materials.

Kelsie Fox | CLOSH intern, NIOSH Mentors: Rebecca Tsai and Taylor Shockey

Kelsie Fox is a MPH student at The Ohio State University. She worked on a variety of projects with her mentors, including an upcoming blog post on the history of the Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance (ABLES) program, the Worker Health Charts card sorting exercises, and an MMWR  examining disability status by occupation group. Throughout this summer, she learned how to conduct interviews, gained a better understanding about user experience research, and obtained more experience with data analysis, writing, and health communication.

ENS Sean McLaughlin | JRCOSTEP intern, NIOSH Mentor: Chris Barnes

ENS Sean McLaughlin was a summer Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (COSTEP) intern who assisted Chris Barnes in an internally-funded pilot project to determine the feasibility of developing a research project to evaluate low-cost do-it-yourself (DIY) air cleaners. The pilot research provided preliminary data that was used by NIOSH researchers to submit a funding proposal that is currently under evaluation by the Center for Preparedness and Response (CPR) Strategic Capacity Building and Innovation Program. DIY air cleaners see increased usage during an infectious disease outbreak, wildfire, dust storm, and other emergent scenarios affecting indoor air quality. They can be an affordable ventilation improvement strategy that resource-burdened schools, employers, businesses, homeowners, and other communities can build and rapidly deploy. However, in order to do this effectively, they must be strategically deployed (in terms of number, placement and orientation) and performance verified.  The proposed research will develop and validate user-friendly performance assessment protocols that facilitate greater usage of low-cost DIY air cleaners for groups that may not have resources or access to higher cost ventilation interventions.  The protocols will provide users with quantified performance metrics associated with improved respiratory health during wildfire events and reduced disease transmission during pandemics.

The NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory(NPPTL)

NPPTL hosted three interns this summer through the Pathways Internships Program.

Assessing the Reduced Filtration Efficiency of Reused Respirators

Maura Siess | NIOSH Mentor: Edward Fisher

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC developed contingency and crisis strategies to help healthcare facilities conserve their supply of respirators in the face of shortages. One of these strategies included the recommendation for the extended use and reuse of N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs). Based on this recommendation, a collaborative study examined the fit and filtration efficiency of respirators under extended use and limited reuse conditions (usage up to five shifts). Researchers found that the majority of FFRs that failed a fit test after limited reuse failed after only two shifts. Some of these FFRs also showed a reduction in filtration performance. Maura Siess is a recent graduate of Penn State University with a bachelor’s in biology. She was accepted into the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Product Engineering Program, where she will be attending this fall. As a part of her internship, Maura worked with NPPTL researchers to determine the cause behind the reduced filtration efficiency of these failed FFRs.

The researchers hypothesized that either physical damage, such as holes, or the loss of charge of the electret filter medium in the FFR could cause filtration efficiency failure. After hole puncturing, visible evaluation via thermal camera, and filtration testing using a TSI 8130 machine, researchers concluded that it is not likely that minor physical damage caused a reduction in filtration efficiency. The testing to evaluate the charge decay of electret filters is in progress, with assessments underway to measure protein contamination on the collected FFRs that passed the filtration efficiency test and the collected FFRs that failed. The goal is to observe differences in soil load which could give insight on possible reasons for charge decay and/or filtration efficiency failure. This project is still in its beginning stages with more testing required to assess possible causes of the reduced filtration of reused FFRs. The conclusions of this project could supplement future extended use and limited reuse recommendations as well as identify possible manufacturing shortcomings.

Assessing Comfort Level of Elastomeric Half-Mask Respirators for Healthcare Use

Kayla Heyward | NIOSH Mentor: Rohan Fernando

Elastomeric half-mask respirators (EHMRs) often have exhalation valves to reduce breathing resistance and exhaust the exhaled breath, providing more breathing comfort for users especially when used over long periods of time. Because an exhalation valve can allow unfiltered exhaled air to escape into the surroundings, EHMRs with unfiltered exhalation valves are not recommended for source control in surgical and other healthcare settings. As a result, respirator manufacturers have designed NIOSH-approved EHMRs without exhalation valves or created exhalation valve adapters to improve source control.

To keep workers such as those in healthcare settings safe and healthy on the job, NIOSH is studying the environmental conditions inside the half-mask of EHMRs without exhalation valves or with exhalation valve adapters to assess the user’s comfort level. Kayla Heyward is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University studying biomedical engineering. During her internship, Kayla helped develop the research study’s design and test methods to measure carbon dioxide and oxygen concentration, humidity, and temperature within the dead space region of EHMRs—i.e., the cavity in which gas exchange does not occur. To measure these parameters, NPPTL researchers will attach sensors to the inner surface of the EHMRs, collect streaming data, and analyze the data using analog to digital data acquisition systems. The data will be processed, logged, and displayed via a I2C communication portal in Arduino and Python software. Results from this study will guide future NIOSH EHMR research areas and help elastomeric respirator manufacturers improve respirator designs for better source control and breathing comfort.

Understanding the Risk for Cancer in Firefighters

Kaylee Boyles | NIOSH Mentor: Jonisha Pollard

Firefighting is a hazardous occupation with high risk for injury. When responding to a fire emergency, firefighters can be exposed to many toxic substances. This exposure can put firefighters at an increased risk for long-term health risks. In particular, cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters. Kaylee Boyles is studying occupational safety while attending Fairmont State University. Kaylee undertook a literature review to understand factors related to increased cancer risks of firefighters as compared to the general public. She examined factors such as poly-fluoroalkyl substances and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on clothing and gear as well as exposure to hazardous fumes and vapors. Notably her research examined peer-reviewed scientific publications and gray literature such as trade association publications, new articles, and professional membership articles to better understand health disparities amongst fire departments with differing levels of resources and gear provided. Kaylee’s literature review summary will help NIOSH researchers identify future research efforts to help protect firefighters.

Training Future OSH Professionals

Attracting students to the field of occupational safety and health and training them is vital to the future of the field. A National Survey of the Occupational Safety and Health Workforce, found that based on current trends, future national demand for occupational safety and health services will significantly outstrip the number of professionals with the necessary training, education, and experience to provide such services. This summer NIOSH staff were excited for the opportunity to show students how fulfilling and interesting a career in occupational safety and health at NIOSH can be. Resources for other internships and occupational safety and health training are provided below. We look forward to hosting more interns in the future and hope that you will join us in fostering the next generation of occupational safety and health professionals.


Julie Tisdale-Pardi, MA, is the NIOSH Science Blog Coordinator.

Additional Resources

Through university-based Education and Research Centers (ERCs), NIOSH supports the development of occupational safety and health professionals. ERCs offer academic degree programs, short-term continuing education (CE) programs for occupational safety and health professionals, and research training opportunities in the core areas of industrial hygiene, occupational health nursing, occupational medicine, and occupational safety.

The Occupational Health Internship Program (OHIP) is a full time, paid summer internship designed to link the skills and interests of students with the needs of workers employed in an under-served or high hazard job. Teams of two interns are assigned to a union or worker organization where they receive supervision from a designated staff member and an academic mentor. Since 2004, OHIP has supported 350 student interns, 186 health and safety projects, and 122 community and labor organizations in 28 US location. For more information including how to apply for 2023 visit the website. OHIP is part of the NIOSH-funded Training Project Grant and is housed within the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics.

For more information about Project Imhotep, an 11-week summer internship program designed to increase the knowledge and skills of underrepresented minority students in biostatistics, epidemiology, and occupational safety and health visit the website.

CDC has numerous internship, training and volunteer opportunities for students of all academic disciplines and levels. Many of these opportunities provide invaluable experiences and potentially offer clear-cut paths to exciting careers with CDC. For more information visit the CDC student internships and jobs website.

The ORISE Research Participation Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an educational and training program designed to provide college students, recent graduates, and university faculty opportunities to connect with the unique resources of the CDC.

The Junior Commissioned Officer Student Training and Extern Program (JRCOSTEP) provides Students in health-related undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs an opportunity to train alongside active duty officers during their school breaks as part of the JRCOSTEP. Participants are paid, and receive health benefits, housing and travel allowances. Programs last between 30 and 120 days. Participants become inactive Public Health Service officers upon completing the program and can activate upon graduation. There is no obligation to join the USPHS Commissioned Corps.

For more information on careers at NIOSH visit the Careers at NIOSH  web page. 

For related blog posts on student training at NIOSH see Student Training.

Posted on by Julie Tisdale-Pardi, MA

4 comments on “Students Making Their Mark at NIOSH”

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    Do the NIOSH Internships fulfill requirements for fieldwork required for Graduate School Capstone courses?

    Thank you for your comment. Requirements for capstone courses are set by programs at individual colleges. Check with your college and/or program to determine how those requirements can be fulfilled.

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Page last reviewed: September 29, 2022
Page last updated: September 29, 2022