2024 Pilot Awardee Spotlight

Iony Ezawa, PhD

Project Title: Identifying Sociocultural Barriers and Best Practices to Address Mental Health Care Disparities in Marginalized Communities: A Mixed Methods and Multi- Perspective Study

Dr. Iony Ezawa is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Depression Treatment Laboratory at the University of Southern California. She completed her doctoral training at The Ohio State University, clinical internship at the University of California, San Diego/Veterans Affairs Consortium, and postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University. Despite the availability of effective therapies for depression, there are substantial disparities in both the access and quality of mental health care. Therefore, she is excited to pursue this project to advance research on sociocultural barriers to the provision of effective mental health care among LA’s marginalized communities. She is very thankful for this pilot program that will provide the opportunity to conduct this project!

Fangqi Guo, PhD

Project Title: Air pollution, neighborhood opportunities, and allostatic load

Dr. Fangqi Guo is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California, Department of Population and Public Health Sciences. Her research interests focus on environmental influences, such as air pollution, and built environment on cardiometabolic health. Using data from the Children’s Health Study (CHS) and a follow-up project of the same cohort, Meta-Air2, her current analysis has identified that long-term childhood exposure to traffic related air pollution elevates the risk of cardiometabolic diseases in young adults. Additionally, she is interested in how broader environmental factors interact with or influence individual-level risk factors, and the resulting joint effects on health.

Helen Foley, PhD

Project Title: miRNA indicators of liver health and effects of PFAS exposures

Dr. Helen Bermudez Foley is a MADRES researcher studying the epigenetic signatures of microRNA in pregnancy and postpartum mothers. She received her BS in Biology from the California Institute of Technology and her PhD from the University of Southern California. Her research has varied widely, including neuron populations in the brain, ecotoxicology and genetics of a tidepool copepod, and most recently, miRNA associated with psychosocial stress and air pollution exposures. She is excited to expand her research on miRNA to use laboratory measures of liver health to investigate metabolic health in mothers. More research is definitely needed in maternal health and how we can understand the complex signatures of metabolic conditions.

Luis Enrique Maldonado, PhD, MPH

Project Title: Maternal exposure to heavy metals, diet quality, and epigenetic age acceleration during pregnancy

Dr. Maldonado’s research aims to understand the genetic, dietary, environmental, and psychosocial risk factors for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (CVD) in racial and ethnic groups and underserved populations, as a framework to explain health disparities. Originally trained in nutrition, Dr. Maldonado sought the pilot program as an exciting opportunity to receive training in environmental health and epigenetics. For example, he hopes to learn new skills in environmental exposure assessment by focusing on metals as an environmental health exposure and epigenomics by centering on DNA methylation as an epigenetic outcome. For his pilot, Dr. Maldonado aims to evaluate the role of metals exposure and their effects on maternal epigenetic aging (based on DNA methylation) during pregnancy.

Jiachen Zhang, PhD

Project Title: Assessing Health Disparities Arising from Air Pollutant Emissions Linked to Port- Related Activities: A Case Study of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

Dr. Jiachen Zhang is a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC). Her group utilizes and enhances a variety of atmospheric models to quantify the transport and transformation of pollutants as well as the impacts of energy and transportation systems on air pollution and climate. During her doctoral study, she enhanced and utilized various atmospheric models to assess the climate and air quality impacts of strategies that mitigate the urban heat islands and help cities adapt to future climate change (e.g., adopting solar reflective “cool” surfaces). Prior to joining USC, Dr. Zhang was the manager of the Mobile Source Technology Assessment and Modeling Section at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), where she led a team of scientists and engineers to conduct original research projects, develop emissions inventory, and inform pioneering policies aimed at promoting electric vehicles and reducing air pollution emissions. She also served on the Equity Principles Workgroup of the Air Quality Planning and Science Division at CARB, evaluating policies via an equity lens. Additionally, she is serving as a secretary of the Air & Waste Management Association West Coast Section.

Futu Chen, PhD

Project Title: Disparities in extreme heat-related mortality through building and neighborhood social environment

Dr. Futu Chen graduated with a Ph.D. in Population Health Sciences (Environmental Epidemiology track) from Harvard University in May 2023 and joined the University of Southern California as a postdoctoral scholar with Dr. Erika Garcia. She is interested in understanding location and neighborhood contexts that shape one's opportunities and risks. The pilot project will provide an opportunity to study extreme heat-related susceptibilities from both parcel (a very small geographical scale) and neighborhood (census-tract) levels, as well as potential interaction between parcel and neighborhood social environments. She is also excited about the chance to work with the MADRES Community Engagement & Dissemination Core in disseminating results with community-based languages, e.g., via info graphs or interactive story maps.


The MADRES Clinic is located on USC’s Soto Campus, which is just a few minutes away from Keck School of Medicine of USC.  At the MADRES Clinic, participants are seen for in-person visits, including survey administration, biospecimens collections and height and weight measurements.  Additional services include imaging, as well as pulmonary function testing.