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Ilona Jaspers has been contributing to research at Carolina for 26 years.

 Ilona Jaspers
Photo by Megan Mendenhall


Ilona Jaspers has worked for UNC-Chapel Hill in a variety of roles, most recently as the director of the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology (CEMALB). She is also the training program director for the School of Medicine’s Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine, associate director of scientific development for the Children’s Research Institute, and a professor in the departments of Pediatrics, Microbiology and Immunology, and Environmental Sciences and Engineering.

What brought you to Carolina?

After receiving my PhD in Environmental Health Sciences from New York University, I came to Chapel Hill for a postdoctoral training opportunity in CEMALB, which works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I really liked the integrated training approach of working in academia and doing mechanistic research. I wanted to study how air pollution affects respiratory health and was excited to do it in close collaboration with the EPA, whose goal is to generate science that can inform policy and regulations.

How has your role here changed over the years?

I’ve gone from being a mentee to a mentor of students, postdocs, fellows, junior faculty, and more. I started out pipetting in the lab to generate data and now lead a research center where I articulate my vision for what our team of investigators can achieve if we work together.

My initial research focused on what happens at a cellular level when pollution enters the lungs, which was an extension from my dissertation. In collaboration with Melinda Beck, I expanded this focus to examine how air pollutants affect respiratory virus infection — a research topic I still pursue — and worked with Terry Noah to develop a safe in vivo model to study the effects.

In collaboration with investigators from the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the EPA, I have been involved in epidemiological studies, using larger databases to establish links between air pollution exposure like wildfire smoke and respiratory diseases.

Over the years, the pollutants or inhalational threats we examine have also changed. I’ve studied diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, e-cigarettes, particulate matter, and ozone. More recently, we have shifted to wildfire smoke, military burn pits, and cannabinoid vaping products.

In addition to conducting research, I have led the Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine since 2011. This PhD and postdoctoral training program is supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and includes mentors across campus, as well as investigators from EPA and NIEHS. In this position, I develop strategies for training the next generation of scientists and providing them with tools to be competitive in the current job market.

And when it comes to leading the institute where I started my career as a postdoc, I constantly like to expand the team and recruit investigators who bring diverse skills and perspectives to the field and are passionate about doing research on the effects of air pollution on human health.

What’s kept you at Carolina?

The collaborative spirit of the University but also the Research Triangle Park area at large. It is a great place to raise a family, do cutting-edge research, and have a good life. It’s really the best area, possibly in the world, for the research I do. We have three leading universities that study the health effects of air pollution and inhaled toxicants (Carolina, Duke, and N.C. State) and have corresponding governmental research agencies (NIEHS and EPA) within reach.

What contribution are you most proud of?

I am most proud of two things: First, my trainees who have gone on to have productive scientific careers, and second, positioning my research to help inform the public. My favorite part of the job is the PhD hooding ceremony. Sitting in the Dean Dome watching new PhDs receive their ceremonial hoods from their mentors makes me emotional every time.

What is a uniquely Carolina experience you’ve had?

I am an avid runner, and both of my kids played high school and club travel soccer. Through these social interactions, I regularly make new connections with Carolina community members and learn diverse perspectives on issues I wouldn’t get at my “day job” on campus. I’ve created collaborations with non-scientists and neighbors that enrich my research and social life.

Rooted recognizes long-standing members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community who have aided in the advancement of research by staying at Carolina. They are crucial to the UNC Research enterprise, experts in their fields, and loyal Tar Heels. Know someone we should feature? Nominate a researcher.

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