George Mason researchers receive $1.78M from NIH for work improving the health of mothers, children


George Mason University scientists, nurses, and researchers in the College of Public Health have just entered the second cycle of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program called Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO).  

The NIH grant provides ECHO teams across the country with a total of $7 million a year for seven years to research five outcomes of women and children: pre-, peri-, and postnatal outcomes; upper and lower airways; obesity; neurodevelopment; and positive health. George Mason will receive $1.78 million every year throughout this cycle.

ECHO researcher and child participant. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding.
An ECHO researcher taking measurements of a child participant. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding.

The cohort, which includes Boston Children’s Hospital, is led by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. George Mason is the only university in Virginia participating in the project. The research being done for the ECHO project is part of a new set of research initiatives made possible with the opening of the Population Health Center on the Fairfax Campus. 

They are currently re-recruiting participants from the first cycle. They have confirmed just over 300 participants out of 1,512. The youngest participant is under one year old and the oldest is 12. 

“We’re aiming to gather information about women and children in a longitudinal manner to compare to our data to that of Omaha, Nebraska, or Iowa. Learning about the regional disparities will then allow us to use them to influence national policy,” said principal investigator Kathi Huddleston, PhD ’08, an associate professor in the College of Public Health. 

Huddleston said George Mason’s robust PhD nursing program and her dissertation research on pediatric emergency preparedness helped to prepare her for this extensive project.  

The team studied the effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever” chemicals, as well as air pollution modeling, sleep patterns, nutrition, and COVID-19, gathering real-time data and look at their associations with child health outcomes, such as child obesity, immunization rates and more. 

This research from the first cycle of ECHO revealed that school lunch consumption was associated with increased obesity in children and prompted policy change that strengthen the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). This resulted in a significant decrease in the overall body mass index among school-aged youths and will have substantial health benefits on generations of children. 

More results from the first cycle included changes in sleep patterns due to COVID-19 and disparities in sleep patterns between children of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. The team also found that there is a strong relationship between the health of the mother at pre- and early conception and the overall health of children. For example, babies born to mothers with higher levels of toxic metals were more likely to be underweight, which could lead to future health issues. 

“If we want to have healthy kids, we have to have healthy moms,” said Huddleston.  

As part of cycle two, the researchers will recruit more pregnant women to gain additional insight, including women who were patients at Inova Health System and have also been working with a lot of the same kids for many years, said Grace Lawrence, PhD ’18, director of research clinical operations for the ECHO project.

George Mason student researchers for the NIH ECHO project. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding.
Student researchers Daisy Posada, Seema Poudel, and Shiva Zarean. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Office of University Branding.

Also on the team are Alma Fuller, nursing student Shiva Zarean, and research project administrators Daisy Posada BA ’13, MA ’18, and Bruna Mayen, a biology major who also acts as the project and lab manager. Mayen’s role as lab manager includes collecting teeth, hair, and urine samples to test the progression of health and well-being in the participants as they grow.   

“I ensure samples are stored at required optimal conditions and freezers are monitored daily,” said Mayen. “I also perform data entry and quality assurance/quality control of all data and samples.”


“Each interaction with the participants is so special, it brings potential for new connections and enriches the overall experience and impact they have on the study and us on their development,” said Mayen.  

The families come into the research facility once a year so researchers can record each family member’s weight, height, and head and waist circumferences, as well as their body fat percentage. 

“We were in the ECHO study when my first child was a newborn. Then my second child was born, and we just kept going,” said Cassie Gallagher, a mom of three young children, all of who participate in the ECHO study. “We’ve been very active in the study, we send in nails, teeth, everything.” 

“I also appreciate how thorough the questions are in the surveys that they send us because they’re trying to get the important answers. Especially when they ask about our stress level and different environmental aspects,” said Gallagher. 

The project encompasses the concept of citizen science as the participants provide all of the information being used to create an impact in public health. They also receive quarterly updates with the researchers’ findings.  

“One of the understated benefits of this study is that children are encouraged to participate firsthand in science and gather an understanding of science in a very personal way,” said Huddleston. “We have received wonderful feedback from the kids about how they feel giving new information to better all children’s health.”