Fellow Story

David Gonzalez: uncovering the health effects of wildfire smoke

Fellow(s): David Gonzalez

David Gonzalez is working to connect the dots between wildfire smoke and human health. Throughout his undergraduate studies, PhD and postdoc appointment at UCLA, he has been researching how breathing in particles from wildfires and e-cigarettes harm our bodies, particularly lung and heart health. 

David was inspired to begin studying wildfire smoke from personal experience. Growing up in Southeast Texas, he had been through floods and hurricanes, but never a wildfire. Then he moved to Simi Valley, CA in 2007, where he first experienced the impacts of wildfires. After moving to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, wildfire episodes became routine. He recalls “there was a fire that blanketed LA for days. I remember not being able to escape it. It was very memorable for me to experience that, but I don’t think I realized the magnitude of wildfires until graduate studies in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Imagine the people that are not in the evacuation zone but still get exposed to dangerous levels of smoke. Children, workers in fields, elderly people: this is not something that they can escape. From what I knew about atmospheric sciences, it was not hard to see how climate change could exacerbate this.”

During his PhD studies with Professor Suzanne Paulson, David investigated how chemicals in wildfire particles generate free radicals in simulated lung lining fluids. A collaboration with pulmonologist and EPA medical officer, Dr. Andrew Ghio, extended this research to human lung fluids and built a bridge to biomedical research.

We do know wildfire smoke will be getting worse with climate change, David says, and that makes it important to improve our understanding of this unique form of pollution and the possible health implications. 

David Gonzalez

Wildfires are a special flavor of pollution that we don't totally understand. We don’t understand its chemistry, health effects, or how it’s different from urban air pollution.

David Gonzalez

"I didn’t realize there was such a gap in that knowledge when I started. The more I dove into it, the more I was motivated to fill that gap. I also find the chemistry of wildfire smoke fascinating," David says. 

At the center of these studies is the chemistry and biology of iron. “It turns out that some of the substances in wildfire particles really like to bind iron. Long story-short, we think that these substances can get into our lung cells and “steal iron” from them causing an iron imbalance that can lead to an inflammatory response and injury.”

His work recently won him an award from the National Institute of Health (NIH): the Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) Postdoctoral Career Transition Award to Promote Diversity (K99/R00). The award provides two years of funding for his postdoctoral research, and three years of funding upon securing a faculty research position. This award is intended to support promising researchers with the transition to tenured faculty roles, which will help David navigate the move from atmospheric sciences to the competitive biomedical research field.  In this proposal, he will be studying if wood smoke particles change the metabolism of iron in our lungs, and if so, does that impact plaque build up in the cardiovascular system. 

After his postdoc, David hopes to run a lab with a dual research focus on both the chemistry and physical science of air pollution particles, and their toxicology and health effects. 

COVID taught us that these are two fields that need to talk to each other more: environmental health and medicine

David Gonazlez

The confusion in the early months of the pandemic reinforced what David learned during his policy training as a Switzer Fellow: scientific understanding must be paired with clear and consistent communication in order to translate to effective policy and public action. 

“The Switzer Fellowship training really opened my eyes to the policy side of environmental health issues,” he says. “Having that context with wildfires was critical to guide my research direction into a field I can study scientifically and has important policy implications. I believe that the Switzer Fellowship was an important stepping stone to my postdoc position and ultimately this NIH award.”