Inside the mind of researcher Perry Hystad

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College of Public Health and Human Sciences Assistant Professor Perry Hystad joined Oregon State University in 2013 after working as a researcher at Cancer Care Ontario and Carex Canada, University of British Columbia and serving as a research consultant at Health Canada and Environment Canada. He earned a master’s degree in Geography from the University of Victoria and a PhD from the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.


What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“While traveling in Asia after earning my undergraduate degree in Geography, I became acutely aware of the connections between the environment and health. This led me to complete a Master’s of Science degree in Medical Geography in which I focused on air pollution exposure assessment. This further drove my interest in understanding how these exposures translated into disease risk, which I pursued in a PhD in Epidemiology at the University of British Columbia.”

What does your current research entail?

CPHHS Assistant Professor Perry Hystad is a researcher in the college's Center for Global Health.

CPHHS Assistant Professor Perry Hystad is a researcher in the college’s Center for Global Health.

“My research examines the connections between health and place – how where we live, work and play impacts our health. A large portion of my research uses spatial exposure assessment methods to determine the health effects associated with exposure to air pollution, ranging from adverse birth outcomes to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases to cancers. Given the spatially correlated nature of air pollution with other social and environmental exposures, I integrate this research within a multidisciplinary framework to examine the interactions between various exposures. For example, neighborhood socioeconomic conditions such as deprivation and community belonging, built environment characteristics such as neighborhood walkability and active transportation, and other environmental exposures such as noise.

Recently, I received the NIH Early Independence Award to conduct PURE-AIR, a global cohort study including approximately 200,000 individuals in 21 countries, which will examine the cardiopulmonary health impacts from outdoor and household air pollution. This five-year study will be a major focus of my research moving forward and will create a global platform for environmental health research.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“When I first entered the field of spatial epidemiology I quickly realized that an overly reductionist approach too often was used that examined one specific exposure in isolation from others. My interdisciplinary training and background in geography has really allowed me to challenge this approach.

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In terms of air pollution, we have made major advances in reducing air pollution levels in developed countries, but the opposite has occurred in developing countries. It is estimated that 3.5 million deaths per year are due to household air pollution from cooking and heating with biomass such as wood and coal, and 3.2 million deaths occur each year from outdoor fine particle matter air pollution. Despite these extraordinary impacts, there have been few air pollution epidemiological studies conducted in developing countries.”

How will this make a difference?

“The goal of my research is to inform policies and practices to help create healthy communities and individuals. The results from the PURE-AIR study will directly inform global, national and local air pollution policy and will hopefully raise awareness of these important exposures to public health.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“The amount of questions that remain unanswered surrounding how place influences health. More than half of the world’s population now live in cities, and while we have learned a lot over the last century on what makes an individual healthy, we know much less on how to create places that foster health and well-being. Economic development is accompanied by both the epidemiological and environmental transition – and optimizing these to enhance public health is a major challenge with numerous unanswered questions. PURE-AIR will hopefully start to address some of these.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“Ultimately – healthier communities and individuals.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPHHS on your research?

“As a new researcher to Oregon State and the CPHHS, I have been impressed with the amount of interdisciplinary research being conducted. Within the college, I currently work with Associate Professor Sue Carozza and Associate Professor John Molitor, and am developing potential projects with several others. I also collaborate with individuals within the Environmental Health Sciences Center, Applied Economics and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.”

Why is research important in the field of Public Health?

“Public health relies on evidence-based policies to improve the health of populations. Almost all policy decisions have an impact on health, and research is needed to identify what influences health and how these factors can be mitigated.”

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What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“While it is a little early to start planning for the follow-up grant to PURE-AIR, I would really like to integrate a climate change and health research component within the study. I feel that climate change is the most pressing environmental health issue facing us today, but we have relatively little information of the potential health impacts in different parts of the world. This research would examine climate change perceptions, adaptability/resilience and projected health impacts within the PURE cohort.

Closer to home, I am also developing research projects that examine how components of the built environment – greenspace, air pollution, social deprivation – affect adverse birth outcomes. These studies will use large population-based data linked to spatial models of the built environment. A portion of this research will also focus on methodology to better understand the dynamic nature between residences and built environment characteristics and what this means for public policy.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“It is often harder to contemplate doing something than actually doing it. I am not sure where this came from, but it is amazing how this can reduce procrastination.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Be flexible in work and life. You never know where you are going to end up and what you are going to be doing, but if you are ready to seize opportunities, you will be successful.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“Pretty much anything I am doing with my family. I have an 18-month-old son, so everything seems new again. Exploring Oregon’s beaches, mountains and wineries have been high on the list lately.”