Protecting reproductive and child health

Courtney Carignan works to ensure food, water and consumer goods are safe.

Courtney Carignan

Courtney Carignan works to ensure food, water and consumer goods are safe. In particular, she helps protect reproductive and child health by investigating mixtures of chemicals that could cause harm.

“I’m an exposure scientist and environmental epidemiologist,” said Carignan. “My research focuses on how people are exposed to harmful chemicals and how they can affect health.”

Carignan is an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. A significant portion of Carignan’s research focuses on PFAS, or perand polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS are manufactured chemicals used in products for stain and water resistance, as well as in foams for fighting fuel fires. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because many do not break down in the environment and are not easily eliminated from the body.

PFAS are found both indoors and outdoors, and have contaminated the drinking water of over 6 million Americans – including that of several communities in Michigan. PFAS exposure can cause harmful health effects in humans, and Carignan researches what those effects are.

“I’m currently investigating immunotoxic effects of PFAS in children exposed to contaminated drinking water and am helping create an educational resource for exposed communities,” she said. “I’m also providing technical assistance for communities here in Michigan, as well as for the state health department.”

Carignan also does research on flame retardants, which began while completing her doctorate at Boston University School of Public Health. A former gymnast, she’s wrapping up a project aimed at reducing gymnasts’ exposure to such chemicals, which she discovered can be found in the foam in gymnastics training facilities. She has also investigated exposure in office workers and infertile couples, and reported effects on fertility among both men and women.

Now, Carignan works with MSU’s Center for Research on Ingredient Safety (CRIS). She said the idea of ingredients being at the center of her work is what drew her to CRIS.

“It is an opportunity for me to learn more about food and to expand my focus on mixtures,” Carignan said. “Food is a complex mixture that’s a big, interesting challenge to fully characterize and understand.”

Q&A: Courtney Carignan  

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Joined MSU: 2017

Education: B.S. in biological sciences, Rutgers University, 2004; Ph.D. in environmental health, Boston University School of Public Health, 2013; postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, 2013-14; postdoctoral fellow at Harvard H. T. Chan School of Public Health, 2014-17

I’m originally from: New Hampshire

Influential or inspiring person: I’m lucky to have had many inspirational mentors, colleagues and collaborators. One writer I really appreciate is Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream. Her writing is personal, powerful and poetic.

My greatest accomplishment is: Being a parent – well, hopefully. You can ask them in 20 years if I did a good job. Professionally, I’m really proud of my work with PFAS-impacted communities, infertile couples.

Favorite vacation: Every summer, my family spends a week at a lake in New Hampshire waterskiing. That’s part of what drew me to Michigan— there are lots of lakes and MSU has a ski team!

Something many people don’t know about me: I was the first female pole vaulter at my high school. I won the state and New England championships, and went to Rutgers on a track scholarship.

I went into this field of study because: My first job out of college involved leading a response action for a community exposed to contaminated drinking water. That experience changed my career trajectory and frames how I think about environmental health research and its importance in protecting public health.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.


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