Taiwan native Hsin-Yi Chang (Global Public Health ’24) had long dreamed of studying public health in New York City. But she never imagined that her coursework would involve bringing culture plates home to her Manhattan apartment to test the living room, dining room, and bathroom for different types of mold. This hands-on activity was an assignment for her environmental health class, taught by GPH Professor Jack Caravanos during the first semester of her master of public health program.
One key takeaway? “You need to clean your home more seriously and avoid wetness in your bathroom!” says Hsin-Yi. “It's so interesting to combine the lecture with your real life.”
Caravanos noted Hsin-Yi’s interest in environmental science and invited her to join him in testing soil as part of a Wall Street Journal investigation into aging telecommunications cables. The old, overhead cables are coated in lead, so when it rains, the toxin can drop into the soil below—which is particularly problematic in areas where children play and may accidentally ingest it.
Using a portable tool called X-ray fluorescence, Hsin-Yi assisted Caravanos in testing hundreds of soil samples below overhead cables in New York, New Jersey, and Louisiana. In addition to the fieldwork, Hsin-Yi brought soil samples back to NYU to process, dry out, and retest, and managed a database of all of the samples.
Their findings revealed a concerning trend.
“When we tested the soil just under the cables, the highest level we got was 5,400 parts per million, or ppm, in one Louisiana park. The regulation for children’s lead levels is just 400 ppm,” explains Hsin-Yi.
The Wall Street Journal investigation was published in July and has already prompted change, with lawmakers, the Justice Department, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking to remedy the public health problem.
“I hope that what I am doing can help the lead-contaminated communities to have a normal and healthy living environment,” says Hsin-Yi. “Hopefully, parents won’t need to worry about their kids playing in the backyard or playground.”
When she’s not traveling to test soil or answering questions from new public health students as an onboarding ambassador, Hsin-Yi has grown to love a sport once reserved for fiction: Quidditch. She currently plays on a team of New York City college students that practices in a park alongside the East River, and it’s been a great way to make new friends from NYU, Columbia, and CUNY.
“When I told my friends I play Quidditch, everyone said, ‘Impossible! How do you play? You can’t fly!’” says Hsin-Yi with a laugh.