Meet EPA Computational Biologist Cavin Ward-Caviness, Ph.D.
EPA computational biologist Cavin Ward-Caviness helps determine which populations are most susceptible to air pollution. His research focuses on understanding the impact of environmental or neighborhood factors, such as living in a neighborhood with lower socioeconomic factors, on health, and the biological pathways that link exposures and health.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I knew that I wanted to be a scientist when I was a sophomore in high school. Early on I thought I was going to do computer programming and build the next Windows and be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
Tell us about your scientific/educational background.
I did my undergraduate studies in New Orleans at Tulane University. Initially, I thought I was going to be biomedical engineer, but I got more interested in mathematics and public health. Then I went to Duke University to get my Ph.D. in computational biology and quickly fell into looking at gene-environment interactions and trying to understand what different genetic mutations (genetic variants) might make someone more sensitive to air pollution exposure.
How does your science matter?
An individual’s health risk is a combination of environmental exposures and underlying risk factors unique to that individual. Through our research, we are identifying people who have increased sensitivity to air pollution exposure and thus might need a more focused response or messaging to protect them from different environmental risks. My job is to find those at-risk individuals, determine what makes them more susceptible, and then hopefully find intervention techniques that we can use to reduce their environmental health risks.
What do you like most about your research?
I like that my research is applicable to public health. There is some research where you finish, you sit back, and you think that maybe in 50 years someone will figure out a way to use this work or maybe in 20 years this will get implemented into clinical medicine. But for me, it’s very easy to see how my research translates into improving public health.
If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would it be? What would you ask him or her?
Neil deGrasse Tyson would be high up on the list. He is a wine lover, so I would certainly ask him about some great wine selections, as well as how he approaches scientific outreach. I got to see him speak one time, and he has a great way of engaging people of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of scientific literacy. I think outreach is something all scientists need to do better.
Any advice for students considering a career in science?
Push your boundaries. It is sometimes a little easy for scientists to fall into a rut of their research and what they know, but I think the best scientists are the ones that are continually reinventing themselves.
You’ve also got to learn to love the mundane parts of science. They say, if you want to be a writer you have to learn to love sentences. If you want to be a painter, you have to learn to love paint. If you want to be a scientist, you have to learn to love cleaning and reanalyzing the same dataset until you get it exactly right.
What do you think the coolest scientific discovery was and why?
One of the coolest discoveries is the fact that we are all—every single one of us--- the living remnants of stars. I think that is just an incredible thing that connects us to the world. We are literally the remnants of countless stars that went supernova and produced the elements that compose us and the world around us. One day as humans move beyond the earth, the sun will explode and make its contributions to other civilizations. There is this continual cycle between the universe, the environment, and ourselves, and that’s a very powerful scientific discovery.
Is there a project or effort that you are most proud of at the EPA?
I have started a collaboration between the EPA and the Carolina Data Warehouse for Health at the University of North Carolina, and in this collaboration we are using electronic health records to study environmental effects. We are right now using it to study air pollution effects in heart failure patients – a very understudied population who have shown high sensitivity to air pollution exposure. We are calling this effort EPA CARES, and I think it has the ability to be a great resource to let us look at health risks due to environmental exposures and community characteristics in the general population and particularly in understudied population groups.
Describe the coolest day you’ve ever had at work.
EPA has this new application called Smoke Sense, which was developed by Dr. Ana Rappold and her team. They’ve been working on the app for years, and I just recently became involved in the project.We were sitting in a meeting and saw that the app was getting increasing usage due to the wildfires in California. While in the meeting, we got an alert that said that the app had been featured on Wired.com, which is a major news outlet for technology. Immediately, everyone tried to check their phones to see if it was true. That was a really cool day of seeing EPA’s product that helps people understand their exposure to wildfire smoke being picked up by the news and being used by people out in the public.
Describe any steps you take in your daily life to protect the environment.
I recycle. That is a very easy and immediate step that we can all take to protect the environment. I also try to reduce my use of disposable plates and cups. Even if I’m ordering takeout. I will try and decline the disposable forks and just use the ones I have at home. I think that’s a very easy and effective way to reduce our overall consumption of disposable things that end up in landfills, in oceans, and our waterways.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.